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Nicolas Poussin
Rinaldo and Armida

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Virgin with Chalice

Paul Cézanne
Pierrot and Harlequin

Henri Rousseau
Jaguar Attacking a Horse

Pablo Picasso
Harlequin and his companion

Pablo Picasso

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse
Nasturtiums and the Dance
When Pushkin Comes to Houston
by Phyllis Tuchman

The other day, when it was below zero in Moscow, it was a balmy 73 degrees in Houston. Russian art lovers gladly brave arctic temperatures, lining up in the cold like they did last year for a Claude Monet retrospective at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, in warmer climes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, there's no wait to see the new loan exhibition from the Pushkin of over 70 French paintings done by artists active in Paris and Rome between the 1620s and the 1960s. Talk about a hot ticket: former president George H.W. Bush and his first lady Barbara Bush arrived early to preview the show, called "Old Masters, Impressionists & Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow."

Over 50 works on view are first-time visitors to America. Remarkably, many of them were never reproduced in histories of art or other reference books, including monographs, published during the 20th century. Consequently, a masterpiece such as Rinaldo and Armida, executed by Nicolas Poussin ca. 1630 and featuring a sorceress falling in love with a Christian knight clad in golden armor in a verdant setting, is not a long-lost relative so much as one you never knew you had.

Though there is an eponymous museum in Aix-en-Provence filled with his lovely, gentle landscapes, Francois-Marius Granet is not a household name, except to Cézanne scholars. The Painter Jacques Stella in Prison, a towering panel measuring six-feet-plus by nearly five feet and painted by this native of Provence in Rome in 1810, should win him the sort of fans he once enjoyed. After all, this view of a cavernous space in which prisoners gather around as the artist of the title draws an exquisite Madonna and Child was once owned by the Empress Josephine, who displayed it in her music room at Malmaison.

And Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's elegant interpretation of Virgin with Chalice, an oil on canvas from 1841, arrived just in time for Christmas to remind one and all of a time when religion, not shopping, dominated year's end. As captivating as the Comtesse d'Haussonville and Mme. Ines Moitesssier -- she readily could convert a heathen or two -- this demure Madonna in prayer was commissioned from Ingres in 1840 by the future Czar Alexander II of Russia and has been conspicuously missing -- imagewise -- from standard accounts of this Neoclassicist's career ever since.

Though comprised of masterworks, this exhibition is even grander than its parts. After you walk through the MFA, Houston's elegant display halls designed not that long ago by architect Rafael Moneo, you'll feel as if you have actually visited a small, well-stocked museum. Works by the famous hang next to others created by less-well-known artists. There's a splendid mix of portraits, still-lifes and landscapes. And besides getting a chance to admire individual achievement, you'll get a feel for the character of the periods in which these paintings were created. To be sure, you'll get a quick lesson in the history of French art during the three centuries anchored at one end by Poussin and dominated by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse at the other.

As the Bushes toured the show, Irina Antonova, the spry, thoughtful, longtime director of the Pushkin, who is known by the honorific Madame Antonova, called attention to Francois-Hubert Drouais' portrait of Prince Dmitri Golitsyn and Jean-Marc Nattier's portrayal of Princess Ekaterina. As an ambassador of art, she was showing a former ambassador, much less a president, an exquisite depiction of a Russian diplomat who, with his family, was posted to Paris for several years and then served as ambassador to Vienna during the last third of the 18th century. This is a lesson in cultural exchange a la 1792. Drouais and Nattier have a bit in common with Barbara Walters and Larry King.

Madame Antonova also was pleased to present Jules Bastien-Lepage's 1882 interpretation of The Village Lovers, a favorite of visitors to the Pushkin. To anyone who walks past a comparable oil in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this might come as a bit of a surprise. But take a look at the sources of Russian realism. It didn't emerge from thin air; it has roots in the road the French impressionists did not take. That Americans traveled this path isn't admitted all that often either. It's easy to forget that Russians and Americans flocked to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

And then there are the incomparable strengths of the Pushkin: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist works once owned by Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, some of which also ended up in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in the wake of World War II. While lots of these canvases will be familiar to you from other loan shows, they tend to be pictures you want to look at again and again. Chances are, however, you have never before seen in person Paul Cézanne's astonishing Pierrot and Harlequin as well as his intriguing The Pipe Smoker and the riveting The Aqueduct. With this trio of canvases, you can teach the origins of 20th-century practices and styles.

While you wouldn't expect to find a Frida Kahlo at the Pushkin, Henri Rousseau's Jaguar Attacking a Horse, with its whiffs of Delacroix and French tapestries, is the sort of picture that inspired the backgrounds in many of the Mexican's beguiling self-portraits. And if you have ever wondered how Andre Derain enjoyed a vaunted reputation after his Fauve years, The Castle provides a convincing answer.

Pablo Picasso is represented by three memorable works. Harlequin and his Companion, a searing depiction of a couple seated at a cafe table with an empty glass and another filled with absinthe calls to mind comparable scenes by Edgar Degas; a winsome rendering of Spanish Woman from Mallorca served as a study for the behatted figure seated on the ground in the right foreground of the Spanish master's Family of Saltimbanques; and a gentle cubist Violin is an example of his oval-formatted pictures.

On a high note, this show of French paintings sends viewers home with flowers arranged by Matisse. Like its siblings in Western museums, the Pushkin's Goldfish is a beguiling blend of color, Old Masters, memories of Morocco and Modernism. While it has long been admired for its radiant palette, it should now be clear to any one who has seen the movie White Balloon that the artist did not just paint these fish because he needed some orange in his picture.

Another variant of other canvases, Nasturtiums and the Dance, similarly expresses a reflection on life and the forces of nature that viewers take for granted if they merely assume that this is a painting representing another painting. How might the art of the teens have developed if Cubism had not caught on or World War I not been waged? Spend a few moments with Matisse's Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas and the mystery clears up.

Literature has often been described as an art that brings armchair readers to distant lands. These days, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston offers its own mystery tour. Besides putting on view masterworks from Moscow (through Mar. 9, 2003), galleries designed by Rafael Moneo and Mies van der Rohe have been displaying paintings from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and Copenhagen's Ordrupgaard Collection (both through Jan. 5), treasures from Afghanistan (through Feb. 9) and splendors from Poland, including Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) (through Feb. 17).

"Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow," Dec. 15, 2002-Mar. 9, 2003, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street, Houston, T.X. 77265.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and the Lancet.