THE ULTIMATE support of the arts has always been a private sort -- parents, friends, spouses. Like an educational television lead-in, one might say, "Picasso's early cubist years, brought to you through the generous contributions of his father, Jose' Ruiz Picasso." Dorothy Pearlstein gave up her own painting career in order to support the ambitions of her husband, Philip Pearlstein. Edward Hopper's wife, Jo, did the same.

This isn't a subject many artists are happy to talk about. Economic dependency reaffirms the artist in the role of child, as if poverty isn't demeaning enough. Elegant art does not always derive from the most elegant living conditions, but from a quality of the artist's mind. Most artists may not go along with Marcel Duchamp's unabashed money consciousness ("I only associate with people who make great French dinners"), but they look for help close to home.

"Parents now think of art as a respectable thing. There's more faith in the artist's profession," sculptor Phillip Pavia, an artist of the abstract expressionist period, said. "But it used to be more a matter of dedication. Parents used to put a lot of pressure on their kids not to be artists. America has always been a puritan place, and to be an artist is to not work."

Pavia's parents sent him to Europe to study and provided an allowance for him for a number of years. His father was a stone carver and helped cast his works, but many other parents have tried to dissuade their children from an artistic career.

Paul Ce'zanne's father, a banker, wrote to his son early in his career, "Child, think of the future. One dies a genius but eats with money." But he sent Paul a monthly allowance and set aside a 400,000-franc inheritance. Ce'zanne's father never approved of his son's ambitions, and the implied threat of being cut off was always in the artist's mind; but, after all, he was an only son.

Patrons in the arts come and go. Popes and kings and the nobility were the mainstays for centuries, but no longer. Governments and corporations have moved into the picture, but with them have come questions of political expedience and censorship. When the budget has to be cut, the arts are often the first to suffer. The private sector, President Reagan suggests, could contribute much more.

Parental support for an artist has generally been more forthcoming in Europe than in the United States, and the profession has long been associated in this country with poverty and squalor. Abroad, it is seen more as a noble activity; Europeans have the historical perspective of antique, Renaissance and more modern art all around them in their cities and churches.

"My mother was pretty adamant about not wanting me to be an artist," says painter Alex Katz, "because she was afraid I would be unhappy. And starving."

Ultimately, his mother reconciled herself and even helped out with money during the first few years of his career.

Many Americans were poor when they landed here, and getting out of poverty has been something of an obsession. Painter Al Held tells how his parents became depressed when he moved into a loft in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a first stop for many Jewish immigrants. "Oh, Al," his mother said, "we spent all our lives trying to work our way out of the Lower East Side and you go moving back!"

With the prosperity that followed World War II and the security that many second- and third-generation Americans began to feel, there has been a greater willingness to indulge the artistic interests of their children. The growth in the numbers of people going to art schools and the financial help many artists receive from their parents are testaments to this resurgence of tolerance.

"I never ask my artists how they support themselves," dealer Ivan Karp says. "I figure that they must be subsidized by their parents or somebody else. I mean, how else can they continue to be artists?"

He adds that some artists are left money in a trust or will, and others get jobs of various sorts: "A lot of parents will buy property, like a loft for their children, as a way of making an investment in their children's careers," he continues.

Spouses and friends have also played vital roles in the careers of many artists. Almost the entire abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and '50s was supported by the wives of the major artists. Barnett Newman's wife, Anna Lee, was a typing instructor and, you like to think, only too happy to earn all the household money as a way of contributing something to humanity. Mark Rothko's wife worked as a model to support him, and Adolph Gottlieb's wife, Esther, taught school to make a living for the two of them.

Many older artists were supported in this way, and in Europe it was a tradition for artists to marry "working girls." Goethe, for instance, married his housekeeper. So did Pierre Bonnard. The "genius syndrome" (as critic Dore Ashton labeled it), with a breadwinner living in the shadow of a great artist, helped permit a good deal of art to be made, but it also left some embittered wives and unhappy marriages in its wake. And in more modern times, this form of support for artists has gone out of fashion.

Artists also help each other out when they can. When he became successful, Emile Zola found himself on every painter's and writer's guest list; many of the Impressionists were in his debt at one time or another. Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald were also generous to their friends and established their own "salons" of needy artists.

Robert Rauschenberg established his own foundation -- Change, Inc. -- which provides emergency money for artists with medical problems. Artists can apply directly when in need. Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Louis Comfort Tiffany all set up foundations through their wills to aid struggling artists -- Gottlieb's foundation is designed to assist older artists. Mystery writer Mary Roberts Reinhart set up a foundation to help emerging writers. All major performing arts unions have emergency funds for their members, partially funded by their employers.

While artists are their own best patrons, unfortunately they often have to look elsewhere for backers. Parents, wives and peers all join the big fraternity that has been responsible for more art than any pope or king.