For six weeks only, the Museum of Natural History is treating visitors to a feast of works by one of the few American wildlife artists who really knew what he was seeing.

Francis Lee Jaques (1887-1969) lived long, traveled far and looked carefully at the wild world, and seized it for us in a melange of contrasting styles and media. He was a plain man, a plainsman who farmed and worked as a woodcutter, a railroad fireman and taxidermist before a drawing he mailed away won him a job at the American Museum of Natural History.

Jaques was crazy about drawing from early childhood, and taught himself to paint in oils or watercolor as it suited him and his subject. Scratchboard, to which Jaques came late, was the medium he mastered; it gave nearly total freedom to his lifelong tendency to skip the details and strike straight to the essence of an animal and the land it lives on.

Jaques scorned the "feather painters" who seize on each separate feature, but fail to capture the whole creature. These superb mechanics dominate our wildlife painting; their Super Bowl is the annual competition for the federal migratory waterfowl stamp, and the winner almost automatically becomes a millionaire. But art it ain't.

An artist Jaques was, although he seemed to think of himself as an illustrator, and admired N. C. Wyeth and his gifted contemporaries and followers who flourished until high-speed film, telephoto lenses and cheap printing plates put them out of business.

Although Jaques also made much of his living illustrating books -- including many by his best friend, and wife, Florence Page Jaques -- his major works were of the first rank. One can return to them again and again without growing jaded, and some could hang without apology beside the best of Winslow Homer, Frederick Remington and John James Audubon.

(Missing data line) nied by a catalogue that seems overpriced at $12.95. Much of the text consists of fragments of the autobiography Jaques labored over inconclusively during his later years. While the interspersed explanatory material is generally helpful, it's often irritating. Unnecessary insertions break the flow of a style that, while unpolished, is original and superior to that of the authors/editors. For instance, referring to his taxidermy period, Jaques writes,

especially evenings, I could hear footsteps creaking down the icy sidewalks.

The cataloguers then blur that image by piling on, "He hoped that they would pause at his shop, and some did. But usually the footsteps receded, and he would remain alone."

But no one stands between us and the works in this retrospective.

FRANCIS LEE JAQUES: ARTIST-NATURALIST -- This Saturday through April 24 on the rotunda balcony