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 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 cowhand. Backwoods preacher Hicks painted sermons. 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 a batch of pictures and preserves of a weekend. It's thriftier doing them by the batch. Text is an uneclectic blend of artistic biography, art critics and history -- reminiscent of Rockwell Kent's World Famous Paintings. A stellar contribution for the gift list and the art shelf, this is mature and considered, American but not chauvinistic.