In a 1971 essay, Linda Nochlin broached the troubling question: "Why have there been no great women artists?" Her answer, as might be expected, dismissed biological causes and focused on the social and educational limitations under which women artists have labored since the beginning of modern civilization. In this book, Nochlin joins with Ann Sutherland Harris and a team of researchers to add awesome documentary evidence to her earlier conclusions. The book - actually the catalogue for the current exhibition (noe in Los Angeles) of the same name - begins with two general essays that trace the female role in the arts from the work of embroiders and illuminators in the Middle Ages through the Surrealist fantasies of Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage. The remainder of the text is devoted to the painstakingly compiled, heavily footnoted biographies of 82 women artists.

Despite the considerable body of original research, the book avoids the dry, dull mannerisms of scholarly writting and is frequently enlivened by the inclusion of salient personal details. The reader learns, for example, that the noted 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by an artists hired to teach her perspective. At his trial, she was tortured with the thumb screw in an attempt to ascertain the truth of her story. Such information, while hardly standard for an art history next, nevertheless helps to paint a vivid picture of the condition of women in earlier times.

For the excellence of its style and format, as well as for its exhaustive erudition, this book will be the definitive text on women in the visual arts for many years to come. (Knopf. $15; paperback, $8.95)