WITH A FEW exceptions -- Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New -- people don't buy art books for themselves: They buy them as gifts. In fact, Madison Avenue could hardly come up with a more perfect present. If this Christmas your significant other unwraps a monumental and expensive volume like Colin Eisler's Paintings in the Hermitage (Stewart Tabori and Chang, $95), just think of the subtle benefits that accrue to you, the thoughtful giver. You are obviously cultivated, politically sensitive and well-salaried; you won't have bought the wrong size or color; and your beloved can wow neighbors and relatives by casually displaying this treasure on the coffee table.

Does this mean we shouldn't buy art books? By no means. But these sumptuous grandes horizontales are no substitute for actual paintings, prints and drawings. After all, only the work of art itself is art; everything else is a copy, merely a visual aide-memoire. By its very nature then, a Paintings in the Hermitage can be only a very big collection of glorious postcards, reminding us of the glories in store for the visitor to the Soviet Union. Far better an hour at the National Gallery than an evening looking at color reproductions. But once we've found ourselves drawn to the work of Watteau or Warhol, or discovered a passion for 17th-century Dutch landscapes, then we can turn to monographs or albums. To paraphrase Brecht, art first, then art books.

Good art books should open our eyes, make us see better, sympathize more fully. They can also teach us to appreciate new or unfamiliar work. After all, anyone can like a Titian. In this respect Robert Hughes's Frank Auerbach (Thames and Hudson, $45) is probably the highlight of the year. Sent as a boy to Britain by his German Jewish parents (who disappeared in the Holocaust), Auerbach has spent his career working in the same Camden Town studio, laboriously painting all day, at night scraping every bit of pigment from his canvas, starting over again the next day and again the next and the next. When completed, his portraits and cityscapes are thick with paint, powerful expressionist blobs and swirls, intensely alive, somber and haunting, images that have emerged only after a tremendous investment of psychic energy. Hughes especially appreciates the fundamental moral seriousness in Auerbach; the man ignores fashions, art-chatter and the gallery world. Beautifully lucid and passionately argued, Hughes's book presents Auerbach as an alternative to the ironic, facile art so prevalent today. Criticism doesn't get any better.

A similar passion informs Jane Kallir's Egon Schiele (Abrams, $195), which presents virtually everything known about this disturbing Austrian master who died of tuberculosis at 28. Schiele caused as much uproar in his day as Mapplethorpe in ours. His oils, gouaches and watercolors depict lesbians, sexually precocious children, masturbation, close-ups of male and female genitalia. At one point Schiele was even imprisoned and brought to trial for what amounts to child pornography. (He was acquitted.) And yet his erotic nudes and expressionist portraits are breathtakingly beautiful. Delicate, airy pencil lines trace a girl's slender body; autumnal splashes of watercolor warm her distant yet brazen face; the final effect is luscious, slightly vulgar and hypnotic.

This album, as sumptuous as they come, provides a fresh account of Schiele's career, 94 color-plates and a catalogue raisonne' of 3,000 works. The price should make anyone blanch, just as the book may make some of us blush -- with pleasure.

No one past the age of 16 ever blushed over Poussin, despite the nude gods and goddesses that strike poses in his classical tableaux. And yet, for many, Poussin is almost the painter, comparable to Bach in music or Pope in poetry. All these masters at first seem mechanical, repetitive, passionless, all too correct and official. But as we grow older, so do they grow increasingly congenial, wise and serene. Their vision is that of middle-age, a world of understanding rather than of action. In this respect, the famous "Et in Arcadia Ego" is exemplary: Four pastoral figures, in varying poses, flank a stone monument that reveals that death comes even in paradise.

Nicolas Poussin (Abbeville, $95), by Alain Merot, authoritatively sets out what is known of this French artist's career, his many years in Rome, his brief sojourn in Paris, his working methods and influence. I would have welcomed even more detail about Poussin's content, for his paintings depict Biblical or classical scenes and each figure, each gesture, may carry great weight. The majestic canvas representing the judgment of Solomon has an immediate impact because we know the story; but what of "The Death of Germanicus" or "The Triumph of Flora"? One needs to read these paintings as much as look at them, and this makes a book like Merot's invaluable. The reproductions here are sharp, plentiful and up-to-date. When I first saw "Winter" some 20 years ago, this late work was so dark with old varnish that I could scarcely make out its figures; since then, it has been cleaned and brightened, making the awful scene depicted -- men, women and children desperately, vainly trying to escape the relentless waters of the Flood -- all the more moving and terrible.

Such epic grandeur is more typically the hallmark of Frederic Edwin Church, a favorite with Washingtonians ever since the American Light exhibition of several years back and even more so since the majestic Church show last year at the National Gallery. Frederic Edwin Church, by Franklin Kelly (National Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Institution Press, $50), comes with an account of the painter's career and special essays on aspects of his work and life, including one by Stephen Jay Gould on the influence of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Even as book-size miniatures these gigantic paintings are imposing, awesome depictions of the natural world at its most sublime -- the Andes mountains, Niagara Falls, monumental ice floes, ancient ruins, South American jungles. These are landscapes that could illustrate the "extraordinary journeys" of Jules Verne or the amazing adventures of Professor Challenger in The Lost World.

A far more intimate world appears in Lorne Campbell's Renaissance Portraits (Yale, $55). Campbell's aim is technical -- to explicate selected portraits and by so doing to understand more exactly the function of these paintings, how and why they were made. To accomplish this task he draws heavily on his intimate knowledge of studio practice (Campbell's father was a professional portrait painter), iconology, recent advances in conservation, and a very good eye. Happily, all this expertise is used to make even more beautiful some of the most beautiful pictures the world has ever seen, among them Bronzino's gorgeous Eleonora de Toledo and Bellini's coolly mandarin Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice.

Like Bronzino and Bellini, Franz Hals has long been admired for his portraits, in his case of self-satisfied Dutch mynheers and their buxom, apple-cheeked wives. Claus Grimm has spent 25 years studying this 17th-century master and the result is Franz Hals: The Complete Work (Abrams, $95), an exceptionally scholarly investigation into the Hals canon published under the guise of a lavish coffee-table book. Grimm sets the number of surviving Hals paintings at 145, arriving at that number by studying conservators' reports and newly cleaned works, by comparing canvases and by his own personal connoisseurship. This is a book that teaches as well as delights. Look for the cover portrait of "The Laughing Cavalier," who could give even Athos, Porthos and Aramis a few pointers on swashbuckling savoir-faire.

There is a book about Rodin every year or so, but it's impossible to tire of his deeply romantic sculptures. Seeing something as seductive as "La Danaide," one understands and sympathizes with those bedazzled young men who, according to legend, try to make love to statues. And certainly the next production of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" would be even more effective if they kept the dumpy singers in the background during the Liebestod and let the stagelights play across the embracing lovers of "Eternal Spring." Rodin (Henry Holt, $29.95), by Monique Laurent, is a modestly priced album, written by a former curator of the Muse'e Rodin in Paris; there are more massive books about its subject, but this one is irresistibly illustrated and sensible -- " 'The Kiss' of 1886 is no doubt Rodin's most famous work, and the one least representative of his art."

If Andrew Stewart's Greek Sculpture (two volumes, Yale, $95) is not definitive, it certainly comes close. Intended to complement and update Gisela Richter's long-standing classic, Sculptures and Sculptors of the Greeks, Stewart's study attempts to cover virtually all the major surviving sculptural works of ancient Greece and to relate them to their social-cultural background. Volume one provides a detailed yet readable text of daunting thoroughness; volume two offers more than 900 black-and-white plates. Scholars will no doubt prefer volume one, while most of the rest of us can receive an education in the Greek ideals of harmony, grace and measure just by looking at these forceful warriors, draped goddesses and delicate Nikes, one of whom bends, oh so delicately, to adjust her sandal.

Anyone who's read A.S. Byatt's acclaimed novel Possession will find himself right at home in Christopher Newall's The Art of Lord Leighton (Phaidon, $50). Frederick Leighton was the best known and most admired of all Victorian painters, eventually becoming president of the Royal Academy of Art. In post-Stracheyan years he was derided for his official academic style, and many of his classical subjects do possess the flavor of murals celebrating the founding of a midwestern university. But a painting like "Invocation" -- a virginal young girl with arms uplifted, swathed in white drapery -- shows unexpectedly haunted eyes. Several portraits could rival those of Sargent -- while other works would embarrass a stone. This slender book offers an affectionate, informed and slightly kitsch peek into the Victorian sensibility.

Few people would admit to a passion for Leighton; almost everyone admires Turner. Luke Herrmann's Turner Prints: The Engraved work of J.M.W. Turner (New York University Press, $85) is a compendious survey of that artist's graphic work. An important book -- but the hard-edged lines of engravings seem at odds with the soft impressionism we generally associate with Turner paintings and watercolors.

Drawings can be beautiful in themselves, but often they will be best appreciated as part of an overall career. Admirers of several modern masters can enjoy selections of their drawings this year: Joann Moser's Visual Poetry: The Drawings of Joseph Stella (Smithsonian University Press, $45); The Drawings of Jasper Johns, by Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine (National Gallery of Art/Thames and Hudson, $60); and Frank Lloyd Wright: Drawings, by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (Abrams, $65) are particularly attractive and authoritative. A far more elaborate work -- part scrapbook, part illustrated biography -- is Mary Lynn Kotz's Rauschenberg/ Art and Life (Abrams, $65), which presents a loving account of this myriad-minded, multi-talented contemporary artist as a "patriot, a citizen activist and a humanitarian."

Perhaps the most visually appealing survey of any aspect of printmaking this fall is David Acton's A Spectrum of Innovation: Color in American Printmaking (Worcester Art Museum/Norton, $65). Acton traces the impact of color printing -- woodblock, lithography -- with representative examples from well-known practitioners, each accompanied by succinct and intelligent commentary. The one-example-per-artist limitation is irritating -- I could have done with quite a few more works by Edward Penfield, John Taylor Arms and Mary Cassatt -- but as the accompaniment to an exhibit, this album is superb.

In fact, having so many attractive picture books around makes me feel like going out to see some real art. Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.