The ideal of the Renaissance man, an individual with exceptional mastery in several fields, was realized with astonishing frequency in Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. The names of Goethe, Voltaire, Jefferson, and Franklin spring to mind, as do several others equally multitalented if perhaps not quite so distinguished.
Among the latter was Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), an American painter, politician, soldier, inventor, and pioneering social scientist, who not only painted the portraits of many of America's Revolutionary War heroes but founded the earliest organized museum of natural history in North America as well.
''Charles Wilson Peale and His World,'' on view at the Metropolitan Museum here, is the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to Peale. It represents every sphere of his accomplishments, and includes everything from portraits to stuffed birds and Indian artifacts. It was organized by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (both have already displayed it), and the Metropolitan Museum.
At best, it's only moderately interesting. Despite Peale's obvious talents as a painter, his portraits, with very few exceptions, are distinguished more by who sat for them than the way they were painted. The major exceptions are his monumental ''The Artist in His Museum'' and the wonderfully true-to-life ''The Staircase Group: Raphaelle and Titian Ramsey Peale I.'' The former depicts Peale at full length lifting a curtain to show the viewer a glimpse of his natural history museum in Philadelphia; the latter shows two of his sons on a curved staircase. Both are extraordinary paintings that stand out dramatically from his other, more straightforward portraits.
The focus of this exhibition is more historical and scientific than aesthetic. I found myself more interested in reading the labels to discover what early Americans were depicted (and why a particular stuffed bird, sketch for an invention, or fossil was included) than in studying the paintings as works of art.
At the Metropolitan through Sept. 4. Artists choose artists
It's always fascinating to see how well-known artists react to the art of their younger or less well-established colleagues. Are they objective about it, or inclined to be favorable only toward work that constitutes no threat? Do they appreciate work unlike their own - or will they give approval only if it resembles what they themselves produce? Are they generous in their praise, or tight-lipped? Are they, in short, fair in their appraisal, or defensive and self-serving?
Most artists, I've discovered, are generous toward their younger colleagues. Art, to most of them, means more than fame or money. And yet I've also noticed that it's unusual for an established artist to single out for praise someone potentially more successful or influential than himself. He will more likely choose someone whose talent, while real, is also somewhat dim next to his own.
I don't suggest this is necessarily calculated or universal, only that it happens rather frequently.
Several good examples of what I mean can be found in ''Artists Choose Artists ,'' at the CDS Gallery here. Jack D. Flam, the show's curator, chose eight painters and sculptors he considered the most interesting and influential of the generation born between 1935 and 1940. Each of these, in turn, chose an artist whose work he admired. Selected examples by all are in this exhibition.
The result is a disappointment. The established artists, Carl Andre, Jim Dine , Bruce Marden, Lawrence Pons, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, William Tucker, and John Walker, are represented by typical but not particularly outstanding pieces. And among their choices, only Steve Keister and Dennis Ashbaugh came up with anything at all interesting - although I did think Michael Young's painting showed promise.
It's too bad, considering how much good and exciting work is being produced by our younger artists today, that these eight distinguished artists should have chosen so poorly. I only hope it was because they wanted to give younger friends or acquaintances a break.
At the CDS Gallery, 13 East 75th Street, through July 16. New York from downtown
Another group show, this time made up entirely of unknown and little-known artists, is on view at the Kouros Gallery here. It presents the work of some of the more energetic, raw, freewheeling, and controversial younger artists of downtown Manhattan to the uptown reaches of Madison Avenue. Fourteen artists are represented - most by more than one work - and all obviously mean business.
The problem is that the majority aren't ready for professional exposure - even in this day and age when artists are expected to be sucessful at 25, and to have major museum retrospectives at 35. All but five or six are still totally under the influence of current art-world fads and fashions and haven't even begun to realize their own creative identities.
It's too bad someone doesn't inform them that influences are to be assimilated, not waved about, and that if an artist ultimately has anything to say, it inevitably derives from his individuality.
But enough. I'd rather point out that Despo Magoni's ''Icarus in the Valley of Silence'' is an excellent work, and that David Humphrey, James Bohary, and Babis Vekris have a great deal going for them.
At the Kouros Gallery, 831 Madison Avenue, through July 6. Art from the ordinary
Akira Arita is a young painter-draftsman who makes exquisite drawings and richly executed paintings of such ordinary things as plates, paint cans, rolls of paper, and pianos. He is also an excellent portraitist - witness his ''Self-Portrait'' and the portrait of his wife.
But mostly, he is a master of subtle pattern and shape. His ''Still Life With Architectural Fragments I'' and ''Ellipse'' are superb. The latter, especially, belongs in a museum.
At the Staempfli Gallery, 47 East 77th Street, through July 8.