FRENCH PAINTING FROM THE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, by Anna Barskaya and Antonina Izerghina (Abrams, $40). Most Americans have only a vague idea of the incredible wealth of Western art housed in Leningrad's Hermitage Museum - here, a famous Caravaggio; and a few familiar moderns like Matisse and Picasso thrown in. This Russian publication covers in 341 color plates (with an additional 44 plates devoted to details) the complete collection of the early French moderns found in the museum form the pre-Impressionists to the artistic trend-setters before the First World War. Uneven as the collection is, it is enviable. The Matisses are staggering in their beauty; the Cezannes and early Picassos impressive; the Monets, Renoirs, Van Goghs, and Gaugins few but magnificient. Many of the artists represented in the collection are nearly forgotten today, but they too flesh out that remarkable period of French art and provide by contrast a measuring stick for the achievements of the masters.
JEAN-FRANCOIS MILLET, by Andre Fermigier (Skira/Rizzoli, $40). Everyone knows Millet, at least two or three of his paintings, and he has long since been relegated to the comfortable category of artists we don't have to think about - simple, a bit sentimental, technically adequate in a crude, primitive sort of way but redeemed (if he is redeemed at all) by the message implicit in his strong, coarse lines, colors and forms. That impression has been destroyed by modern research into his widely scattered works, and the evidence for a new evaluation is eloquently presented in this book's text (by the art critic of Le Monde,) even more eloquently by the 145 illustrations (43 in color) which assemble an impressive visual documentation of his subtly varied, deceptively sophisticated talents. The text is lucid, accessible and (most important) conveniently arranged so that the discussion of a painting is frequently on the page facing it. Millet's work makes severe demands on the printer's art, for his muted, earthy colors depend on subtlety for their full effect. This Swiss-produced volume meets the challenge with distinction.
HENRI FANTIN-LATOUR, by Edward Lucie-Smith (Rizzoli, $35). A comprehensive study of the retiring French artist who was painting during the last half of the 19th century. Although his vibrant flower paintings are best-known, this book includes many of his portraits - he was so shy that he mostly painted members of this own family and friends, as well as self-portraits. The results have a warm, unaffected air, akin to but without the sentimentality of Joshua Reynolds. Selected paintings are reproduced here in excellent color, with special attention to two group portraits that have special documentary interest: Homage to Delacroix, a group which includes Fantin himself, Whistler, Manet and Baudelaire; and Corner of the Table, which includes Verlaine and a very striking Rimbaud. The full rage of the artist is indicated in a large number of black and white plates - which cry out for the color that would have put the book into the stratospheric price range.