The land was ours before we were the land's,"" said Robert Frost. As the character of the continent and its people melded, American artists viewed their surroundings and committed what they saw to canvas. Here, in full color, with a commentary by Alexander Eliot, art editor of Time, are 250 of their statements -- from miniaturist Malbone to the social realist of the Ashcan School. Remington and Russell spoke for the Western cowhand and the buffalo, George Catlin for the doomed Mandin Indians. Backwoods preacher Hicks painted sermons, regarding art as Religion's handmaiden. Spurned by painting, Morse turned to tinkering and invented the telegraph machine. Audubon violated a major artistic maxim --not to mix media -- laid pastel over water color to immortalize his love for birds and animals. Today Grandma Moses --she got as far as the Sixth Reader -- puts up preserves and as thriftily a ""batch"" of paintings. Many of America's uncertain artist sons became expatriates. Some returned to record the American vision, like Grant Wood. Others, like Whistler chose ""not to be born in Lowell, Massachusetts"". Nevertheless, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, in his introduction, denies Europe's claim to our Copley, Stuart, West, Whistler, Sargent, and Mary Cassat. The text is a warm, uneclectic blend of artistic biography, art criticism and history --reminiscent of Rockwell Kent's World Famous Paintings. A stellar contribution for the gift list and for the art shelf, this is mature and considered, glinting with humor, American but not chauvinistic.