Critics' choices for that special gift. Art.

RAPHAEL, C'ezanne, Picasso - could three artists be more different? Three books published this year certainly suggest their dissimilarity. Yet they all extended the reach of art by a kind of dissatisfaction with the past. In the last few years, there has been a sudden increase in published studies of that quintessential artist of the High Renaissance, Raphael. This was largely stimulated by the celebration of the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1983. Francis Ames-Lewis (author of ``Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy'' five years ago) acknowledges his debt in the preface of his latest contribution, The Draftsman Raphael (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 176 pp., $35). His aim is to ``bring together some of the many threads of recent consideration'' of Raphael's drawings. He achieves his aim admirably.

This does not pretend to be other than a book for specialists. A prior knowledge of at least the major works of the artist is assumed: The reproductions, many of them generously in color even though color is the very subtlest characteristic of silverpoint or chalk drawings, concentrate on the drawings themselves; the final paintings and frescoes for which the drawings were preparations are reduced to the size of postage stamps. This economy is a disadvantage.

Ames-Lewis also expects his reader to know rather more than the broad outline of Raphael's short, rapidly developing career, which took him from provincial Perugia to Florence to Rome, where he worked, in what turned out to be his maturity, for the papal court and where he responded consummately to the power of Michelangelo's new Sistine ceiling. The author must have reckoned that anyone interested enough to follow his intricate anatomy of Raphael's drawing practices would have, or could easily acquire, the necessary background.

That said, his study offers remarkable insights into Raphael's ``orderly, concentrated intellect.'' The painter's urge to continually educate himself and to tackle ever more ambitious projects emerges in his drawings as not merely genius at play and remarkable ``technical versatility,'' but as a dogged determination simply to get things right. Ames-Lewis is particularly revealing as he confidently explores the sequence and purpose of Raphael's procedure, moving, in a given commission, from initial concept to detailed study to cartoon to ``auxiliary cartoon'' to final work. He convincingly explains why the artist chose different drawing media at different times - not at all a haphazard matter of using what came to hand.

It remains one of the fascinations of Raphael's art that what to him was the grind of the workshop mill as it urgently worked up to another madonna and child, or the next private-room decoration at the Vatican, is to us the intimate, at times almost passionate, evidence of an astonishing artist's ever-growing sensibility.

And then there's Paul C'ezanne. This 19th-century bull-in-the-china-shop of French artistic conventions was not one to make preparations. John Rewald, in his newest addition to a lifetime of C'ezanne studies, C'ezanne: A Biography (Abrams, New York, 288 pp., $67.50), even reckons that the master from Aix-en-Provence sometimes drew only because he had forgotten to take his painting equipment with him. Several drawings reproduced in the chapter on ``C'ezanne's theories'' suggest otherwise, but it is true that for him the process of painting contained in itself all that he meant by ``drawing'' as he painstakingly tried to capture on canvas ``the logic of organized sensations'' and tried ``to render perspective through color alone.''

Rewald's book - actually a revised, expanded, and tellingly illustrated version of his 50-year-old Sorbonne thesis on Zola and C'ezanne - retells C'ezanne's story with scrupulous accuracy and frequent reference to contemporary documents. Though he indulges a minimum of critical analysis, he is clearly pro-C'ezanne.

He does, however, have to admit his feeling that the inner agitations of his hero's still-difficult early work made it ``in truth ... more vigorous ... than subtle.'' But he also quotes the young C'ezanne's friend Fortun'e Marion, who found this early work ``astonishingly real'' as well as having a ``somewhat repellent ferocity.'' The evidence in general points not to C'ezanne's incompetence but to his knowing very well what he was doing in those early years, deliberately acting in wild defiance of the art establishment.

The change between early C'ezanne and the self-critical, paranoid old painter of his later period is presented in a balanced way. Rewald is more charitable about his crusty unsociability than some biographers, putting it down to a ``mixture of mistrust and confidence.'' This analysis applies to his late art quite as accurately as his late character. Increasingly he felt he might be achieving something - though much too late - but his difficulty in finishing increased: While he didn't prepare his paintings with endless Raphaelesque drawings, his desire for perfection was, in its own context, no less exhaustive. His entire painting process became one of meticulous preparation to give what he called ``concrete shape to his sensations and perceptions.''

And Picasso. He is the subject of Je suis le Cahier (the Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 349 pp., $65). This book is devoted to the sketchbooks of Picasso, which until now have been privately secreted in his family's collections. The 45 sketchbooks involved provide a wealth of further insight into the Spanish modern master's work throughout his long career, with only a few gaps. Perhaps the saddest gap is the absence of sketches relating to the time when he worked with Braque in the invention of Cubism. Perhaps the most interesting sketchbook discussed in this book (in one of six brief essays by experts on six selected sketchbooks) is ``No. 42, 1907'' in preparation for the ``epochal'' painting ``Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.'' There is nothing of Raphael's order about the genesis of this primitive masterpiece. But there is surely something C'ezannesque about one of the compositional sketches for it - it possibly relates to C'ezanne's ``The Temptation of St. Anthony'' of circa 1877 - a connection that gets lost in the more overt influences at that time of tribal carvings on this artist's eclectic, multicultural vision.

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