There is a long tradition among artists of all forms, but especially in the visual arts, of a fascination with young girls. Rembrandt first met his wife, Saskia, when she was 14, the pre-Raphaelites waxed over images of scarcely post-pubertal maidens. Whistler painted some enchanting portraits of girls, as did Sargent. The great Victorian novelists had love affairs, some

of them outside of print, too,

with adolescent girls. And the

origin of classic cinema was bound up with the attractiveness which early directors felt for very young women like Mary Pickford or the Gish girls. But those were different ages. The artist known

as Balthus, who died on Sunday, became notorious in a different time for his oft-described ''erotic'' paintings of pubescent girls.

Balthus Balthazar Klossowski, Count de Rola, was born into an aristocratic family with a Polish father and a Russian Jewish mother who were friends with some of the leading artists and intellectuals of their day, including Matisse and Pierre Bonnard. It was another family friend, the poet Rilke, who first discovered Balthus's extraordinary draughtsmanship and who published, with a preface by himself, a set of drawings of cats when Balthus was a prodigy of 13.

By the time Balthus was 20 he had immersed himself in classical drawing and painting, preferring to study the works of the masters in the Louvre and then later in Italy where he discovered Pierro della Francesca. He never went to any art school and worked in the classical narrative style, often in that most difficult of all mediums, casein tempera.

Though the family were German citizens, they had moved to Paris and, at the outset of the First World War, moved again, as enemy aliens, albeit deeply

cosmopolitan, to Geneva, where Balthus was eventually to end his days, near Gstaad. But it was in Paris that the painter had his first exhibition, in 1934. Subsequently, he met Pierre Matisse, the foremost figure in the American art world, and the payphone millionaire, James Thrall Soby, in 1938. He quickly became one of the most collectable of European painters. He was, indeed, collected by Picasso, a great admirer, and by Derain and Joan Miro, whom he also painted. Miro once said that he was greatly anxious by

his portrait by Balthus. ''Like looking at yourself without a

mirror,'' he said. ''He is the greatest realist painter of his age.''

But it is not for his undoubted craft and portraiture that Balthus is known. It is for the power of what many saw as erotic paintings of girls on the edge of puberty. This notoriety dogged him throughout his painting career, though it

did nothing to stem the flow of lucre into his coffers. Today a Balthus can and does sell for $6m-plus. Now, after his death, you can expect considerable increases in the sums his paintings will acquire.

Balthus was much of a recluse. After a short period of military service in the French army during the Second World War, he returned to Switzerland, though from there he funded an underground railway for allied refugees, for which he was rewarded with the post of head of the French cultural centre in Rome, the Villa Medici, by Andre Malraux, then French minister for culture.

In later years he travelled, at last to the United States where he was a much-feted figure, though even as late as 1986 the American Museum of Modern Art was forced to remove one of his paintings of a young Chinese girl. He also became, which seems bizarre, a friend of pop stars and film actors: his last birthday party had Tony Curtis and David Bowie as guests, and U2 played in his honour, singer Bono being a late but close friend. True to his own aristocratic background, another guest was the last of the Russian royal family, Nicholas Romanov.

Balthus painted supremely, with a maestro's touch, and no-one could doubt his dexterity in line and paint. The images of pubertal girls may cause some to wonder but, then, it has to be said that if anybody finds these beautifully frozen images of girls about to embark on womanhood erotic, then they must recognise the eroticism in themselves. There is no question about the attractiveness

of his young subjects, but this is a theme of a great many artists from the dawn of art. Contemporary painters such as Peter Blake and Graham Ovenden have been criticised for their interest in painting young female models but they, too, are artists of repute.

The truth would seem to be that Balthus painted from his own vision, and that what some

others' inner visions appear to be are more corrupt than anything Balthus himself painted. Myself, all I can see is wonderful painting and a rather disturbing innocence, which I am afraid I lost long years ago. Balthus can recapture that.