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Artists/the arts; The Great Book of French Impressionism, by Diane Kelder. New York: Abbeyville Press. $100.

This jumbo-size volume will be difficult to hide until he holidays; with pages measuring 12 by 15 inches, it must rank as one of the season's biggest. Its spectacularly detailed prints of many of the world's Impressionist masterpieces -- over 450 in all, 200 of them in color -- make it outstanding in quantity and quality.

Today's generation looks back at the Impressionist period as one of the happiest in all of art -- sunlit landscapes in bright colors that delight the eye. The style appeared at a time of near-perfection in classical academic painting skills. Yet the invention of photography presented a profound challenge to the classical school. Here was a process that could reproduce exactly what the eye saw, and in far greater detail and accuracy than the artist ever could.

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Painters reconsidered their view of the world. Perhaps their role was to be found not so much in recording photo-realism as in exploring the less tangible -- atmosphere, light, color, wind. For a few artists in Paris, the world became an "impression." Diane Kelder, an art history professor, traces the development of Impressionism in a lively text that complements the illustrations. Lovers of this period will want to consider this impressive new guide.

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