IT'S a pity, considering the extent of the world's natural resources, that so few artists have attempted to depict its wildlife with any degree of imagination or commitment, and with any other goal in mind than to document rare or foreign birds and animals within their natural habitats for scientific or illustrational purposes. Even John James Audubon, for all his great achievements, was more ornithologist than artist, and such other well-known figures as Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Robert Bateman must be perceived primarily as first-rate illustrators of bird and animal life.
There are exceptions, of course, and among the best of them is Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939), one of Sweden's major painters, and one of the very few artists ever to have transformed studies of waterfowl, birds of prey, and game animals into art without sentimentalizing these creatures or presenting them mainly as objects of scientific inquiry or curiosity.
What Liljefors attempted was considerably more difficult, and as far as art is concerned, much more important. In his own words, ``We generally regard animals in the same way that a Martian, transplanted to earth, would look at human beings. He would note just the race, type or cast, not the individual. What I try to portray in my animal pictures is exactly that individual.''
That he succeeded, and with a degree of consistency that is quite amazing, is now a matter of record. For Americans, however - few of whom have seen any of his originals - he remains either unknown or something of a mystery.
Only a handful of his canvases have ever been exhibited in the United States, and most of those made the round-trip journey across the Atlantic toward the end of the 19th century.
Now, however, thanks to Sweden's Gothenburg Art Gallery, Americans have an excellent opportunity to familiarize themselves with a large body of Liljefors's work.
On view in his first full-scale American exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History here are 45 paintings (including several preparatory studies) and 15 watercolors and drawings. These range in time from a remarkably lifelike oil of ``Foxes,'' painted in 1886, to a few of his more open and atmospheric pictures of the 1920s and '30s.
Liljefors's life story can be quickly told. He was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1860, attended the Stockholm Academy of Art from 1879 to 1882, and after a study trip to Germany, returned to Sweden via Italy and Paris in 1883.
Although critical acclaim was not long in coming - his ``Goshawk and Black Grouse'' was accepted for the 1884 Paris Salon, and he received favorable notices and two medals for his paintings in Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 - financial security eluded him until relatively late in life.
From 1907 on, however, thanks to a highly successful exhibition, he was both financially independent and famous. Honored and admired, he continued to work as hard as ever until failing health forced him to slow down and then to stop painting altogether shortly before his death in 1939.
Liljefors's appeal stems from several sources, but most particularly from his ability to depict the character of individual animals and birds (he once said of himself, ``I paint animal portraits'') within their natural settings and without ``humanizing'' them or making them serve as projections of his own feelings. His creatures are what they are and nothing else.
The one major exception - and it is a revealing one in that it indicates the direction he might have taken had he not been so enthralled by the sheer physical actuality of the outdoors and its various denizens - is ``Eagle Owl Deep in the Forest.''
Executed in 1895, during a personal crisis, and while the artist was living in Copenhagen, it depicts a lone owl on a rock against a mass of black trees staring out at the viewer. For once in his art, suggestion wins out over descriptive fact. Nothing in this haunting night painting is precisely defined. Almost everything is left to the viewer's imagination - a fact that has led more than one critic to assume that Liljefors permitted Edvard Munch's brooding images (which he had probably seen in Stockholm the year before) to influence him while painting it.
On the whole, however, was a realist. His animals and birds live in a very real world in which danger and death are always present. There, anything can happen, from charming and delightful activities (young fox cubs at play, ducklings crossing a pond with their mother), to violent and deadly events (an eagle swooping down on a running hare, a hunter lying in wait for a fox). But always, the tale is told with drama, fidelity to nature, technical finesse, and flair.
There was little Liljefors couldn't render in perfect detail or capture in a shrewdly calculated and brilliantly executed effect. If his early paintings occasionally appear almost too academic in their awesome faithfulness to natural appearance, they yet are so full of life, and engage our attention with such immediacy and impact, that they rise considerably above the works generally seen in the official salons of his time.
And as for his later work, well, a number of them (``Midsummer Night,'' ``Eiders on Skerry,'' ``Woodcock in Flight'') are extraordinary evocations of place, time, and atmosphere. And a few others (``Grebe,'' ``Gull at Nest,'' ``Wild Ducks in Horsetail Reeds'') are, quite simply, among the finest wildlife pictures painted to date.
At the American Museum of Natural History through Aug. 7. After that, this excellent exhibition travels to the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (Sept. 9- Jan. 1, 1989).