With each passing year, the hardcover art book' is becoming more and more frankly a luxury product, aimed almost exclusively at the Christmas gift market and purchased, one assumes, by altruists who would not dream of spending that kind of money on a book for themselves but are happy to do it as a gesture of friendship. Some items are now priced close to $100, with a few, well over that amount, and the standards of quality-control in reproducing the colored pictures are correspondingly high. But that is small consolation to the impecunious art-lover who wants to have well-illustrated critical and biographical studies of his favorite artists or schools.

Fortunately for this group (which, one suspects, is large and growing), quality art books have begun to be a significant factor on paperback lists, many of them reprints appearing a year (or a few years) after the lavish gift books, available at a fraction of the cost and enjoying the same high technical standards as the originals. Presumably, there will be no paperback edition of the lavish Andrew Wyeth volume published last year by Houghton Mifflin; the plates of that edition were destroyed to ensure purchasers that their expensive copies would not be plagued later by appearance of a host of poor relatives. But few other publishers are taking such drastic measures, and the quality paperback art market is expanding rapidly. The titles surveyed below should serve as ample compensation for those who did not find the deluxe $400 edition of Rails of the World under the tree this morning - provided they care more about the content of the book than its binding. Histories and Surveys

At present, these seem to constitute the largest field in quality paperbacks art publishing - indicating, perhaps, a conviction among publishers that most of their prospective clients are at the entry level in this area of interest. Notable titles include three from the combined houses of Skira and Rizzoli, in a series called "Treasures of Asia" which features substantial, perceptive texts and abundant, finely crafted illustrations. Of these, the most attractive is Chinese Painting, text by James Cahill (Skira/Rizzoli, $12.50), simply because it draws on such a long, rich tradition, with so much variety of style and technique within an immediately recognizable national idiom.

Arab Painting, text by Richard Ettinghausen (Skira/Rizzoli, $12.50) chronicles the relatively brief flowering of an art expressed mainly in manuscript illustrations, enriched (or contaminated) by classical, Byzantine and Persian influences and finally extinguished by religious tabus and the fortunes of war.

Persia stood for centuries astride the only practical route between China and the Middle East (not to mention Europe), and this position is reflected (with a special fascination for the lover of Chinese art) in Persian Art, text by Basil Gray (Skira/Rizzoli, $12.50), where you can see strong Chinese influences being gradually assimilated into a distinctive national style. The quality of reproduction is excellent in all three of these volumes, and there are 80 to 100 colored illustrations in each.

The text outweighs the illustrations in Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists, by Eleanor Tufts (Paddington, $7.95), which has 125 black-and-white illustrations and is dedicated primarily to rescuing from undeserved neglect the work of 22 women artists from the Renaissance to the present. One may quibble in a few cases; Kaethe Kollwitz is not really neglected, and the neglect of Rosa Bonheur and Edmondia Lewis is not entirely undeserved, but on the whole the point is well taken and thoroughly demonstrated, and this book performs a real service.

The Art of Sculpture, by Herbert Read (Princeton/Bollingen, $8.95), also has a text that outweighs the 224 black-and-white pictures, not because the pictures are not striking and useful - they are, to the degree that photos of sculpture can be - but because the text is a classic in its field. Its paperback appearance is an occasion for rejoicing.

The Story of Painting: From Cave Painting to Modern Times, by H.W. Janson and Dora Jane Janson (Abrams, $7.95) has taken (as its title indicates) an enormous field to cover in 173 pages and 140 illustrations (89 in color), but it gives a good general view of the Western painting tradition and the color-processing has the excellence associated with Abrams. With approximately the same amount of space and 15 more illustrations (61 in color), Abraham A. Davidson is able to give more detail on The Story of American Painting (Abrams, $6.95), and this is a good introductory text if not the last word on the subject. The pictures are much more abundant and brilliantly presented in The Flowering of American Folk Art: 1776-1876, by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester (Penguin, $9.95). This book's relatively restricted field is documented with 410 illustrations (over 100 in color); the text is succinct and more useful than elegant, but the pictures make this one of the year's best art paperbacks. Specialties

Coffee-table books devoted to a specific artist, a staple of the hardcover trade, are still a secondary part of paperback output. By far the most significant this year is Viking-Penguin's Georgia O'Keeffe (Penguin, $14.95), a large-format publication on the extra-heavy paper familiar from expensive hardcover art books. It contains a brief autobiographical statement by the artist and a running commentary on the 108 superb color illustrations.

Two books with an exceptionally low cost in proportion to their quality are among the first entries in what one hopes will be a long series: "Masters of World Painting," a joint project of Abrams and Aurora Publishers in Leningrad, the Soviet Union's largest publisher of art books. At $3.95 each, the Lucas Cranach and Titian in this series are clearly the finest paperbacks on the market in their cost bracket and comparable in quality (if not in the abundance of illustrations) with volumes sold at multiples of their cost. An interesting side-benefit is that the introductory essays and the data given with each picture are printed in Russian as well as in English. Future is sues promise not only such Western stalwarts as Watteau, Rubens and Picasso, but such relatively unknown Russians as Korin, Ushakov and Konchalovsky.

Even less expensive, but also less dazzling technically, is the "Understanding the Masters" series from A&W Visual Library at $2.95 apiece. The first four volumes (32 pages each) are devoted to Gauguin, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, with an interesting introductory essay on the artist and a selection of pictures, including 16 pages in color. This is not coffee-table material but a worthy venture in basic art education.

In William Blake: The Seer and His Visions, by Milton Klonsky (Harmony, $6.95), the interest is divided equally between text and pictures.Word and image alike are used effectively to explore the strange inner world of this poet-artist in a book which is not aimed at the casual browser interested in pictures. The same qualities are notable in what amounts virtually to a campanion-volume: Visions of Heaven and Hell, by Richard Cavendish (Harmony, $6.95), but the pictures are so abundant, so striking and so well-reproduced that they tend to distract the eye somewhat from the text's discussion of various concepts of the afterlife.

The Peacock/Bantam series on individual artists, which is produced with very high technical standards, tends to focus on artists with a mass appeal, chiefly illustrators of children's books such as Howard Pyle, Kay Nielsen and Nancy Eckholm Burkert. One title of more than passing interest in the series is The Fantastic World of Gervasio Gallardo (Peacock/Bantam, $6.95), which portrays in striking fashion a superb technique at the service of a surreal vision often akin to those of Ernst of Magritte. Back to Shools

The two schools of painting which inspire the most widespread interest today are very elegantly presented in Impressionism, by Pierre Courthion and Surrealism, by Uwe M. Schneede (Abrams, $7.95 each). Both studies are comprehensive, readable, lucidly arranged and well illustrated, with an abundance of good color plates. Of more limited interest, though the subject is important as a precursor of Surrealism, is Odilon Redon, edited by Carolyn Keay; introduction by Thomas Walters (Rizzoli, $7.95). A mediocre draftsman and colorist.Redon produced a few haunting masterpieces and a multitude of strange visions: disembodied heads floating about empty or distorted landscapes; spectral apparitions; monsters. Only eight of the plates in this edition are in color, but Redon's world is just as disturbing, perhaps more so, in monochrome. Real Books

All of the books mentioned above are, in a sense, collages; they are gathered together from diverse materials most of which were not originally produced to be put into books. In sharp contrast, a new project of the Paddington Press, the "Masterpieces of the Illustrated Book" series, is reissuing illustrative art in its original milieu - old books (usually complete, sometimes excerpted) with the drawings that originally illustrated them. The titles recently issued appeal to a wide variety of tastes, both in reading and in art.

Perhaps the most generally appealing is the combination of worldly fables and fantastic engravings in Public and Private Lives of Animals, illustrated by J.J. Grandville (Paddington, $6.95). Other notable titles: Images from the Old Testament, by Hans Holbein ($4.95); Apocalypse: The Revelation of St. John, engravings by Jean Duvet ($4.95); Under the Hill and Other Essays in Prose and Verse, by Aubrey Beardsley ($4.95); A New Method of Landscape, by Alexander Cozens ($4.95); Faust (Part One), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with 18 lithographs by Eugene Delacroix ($5.95); Selections from A History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick ($6.95).