Even to those who consider themselves art aficionados, the names of artists featured in exhibits around western Montana don't always ring a bell. But even to those whose knowledge of art is limited to dorm-room posters and Trivial Pursuit questions, names like Renoir, Gauguin, Picasso and Delacroix should sound familiar.

Those are just a few of the artists featured in a pair of exhibits that open tonight on the University of Montana campus. Taken together, the shows will provide Montanans with a first-hand, up-close view of original artworks by some of the most important and well-known artists of the past two centuries.

Remarkably, you and I own several of the never-before-exhibited works on exhibit: They belong to the MMAC, Montana's only state-owned art museum.

Many of the other works on display haven't been seen publicly - here, or anywhere - in four decades or more.

"We don't believe Montanans have ever had an opportunity like this to see artists of this level of historical importance," said Barbara Koostra, executive director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, which will present the exhibits in the Paxson and Meloy galleries in the PAR/TV Building. "There are wonderful exhibits across our state constantly; but we're not aware of anything this monumental."

"It's almost a crash course in art history, showing who some of the biggest players have been," added Brandon Reintjes, curator of art at the MMAC. "We're incredibly proud to bring it to Montana."

The landmark pair of exhibits had its origins earlier this year, when a private art collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) approached the MMAC with a once-in-a-lifetime offer to exhibit a group of 14 portraits valued at more than $14 million. The names of the artists behind those works read like a who's who of European art in the 19th and 20th century: Pierre-August Renoir, Max Ernst, Théophile van Rysselberghe, René Magritte, Alexander Archipenko, Rosa Bonheur, William Bourgereau, George Romney and John William Waterhouse.

Though the artists are well-known, few of the artworks are. That's because - unlike, say, Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" or Magritte's "The Treachery of Images" - they've been held in private collections rather than museums.

For that very reason, Reintjes said he anticipates art historians and aficionados will come from near and far to view the exhibition, which will run through March 12.

"With the exception of, I think, the Renoir and Waterhouse, these works have not been known publicly very much because they've been in private collections for such a long time," said Reintjes. "Now they're emerging from private collections, but only briefly, so I think there will be a lot of interest from people to see them."

To complement the exhibit of borrowed paintings, Reintjes dug deep into the MMAC's own archives to put together a companion exhibit focused on original prints by well-known artists.

Titled "Three Centuries of European Prints from the MMAC Permanent Collection," the exhibit features a list of artists' names that itself could serve as a quick history of three centuries of art: Pablo Picasso, Eugene Delacroix, Joan Miro, Nicolas De Larmessin, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Louis Simon Lempereur, Christian Dietrich, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, Giacomo Nevay, Adolphe Appian, Maxime Lalanne, Georges Roualt and Alberto Giacometti.

Though focused on prints rather than one-of-a-kind artworks, the exhibit nonetheless features works produced and approved by the artists' hands - in many cases showcasing state-of-the-art printmaking technology of the day.

"There's no overlap in terms of the artists," said Reintjes of the two concurrent shows. "But in terms of quality, it matches. ... Altogether, it's a really broad range of artists and styles of work represented in the two shows. It's our effort to put Montanans in touch with some of the best art out there. These were, in their time, some of the most celebrated artists of their generations."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.