WASHINGTON — THE National Gallery of Art is having its 50th birthday party, and guests are bringing glamorous gifts: works of art by Rembrandt and Rothko, William Blake and Milton Avery, Watteau and Winslow Homer, Titian and Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet and Claes Oldenburg, Canaletto and Helen Frankenthaler. The artists are so diverse it's a shock to see them together in this one show several stories high at the gallery's East Building. By the kickoff of what gallery director J. Carter Brown calls ``this birthday bash,'' over 320 gifts from l50 donors had been placed on exhibit at ``Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.'' And that's just the start of the party. With months to go in the birthday year Mr. Brown expects even more treasures. (This show closes June l6). This year Congress waved its wand and briefly restored full market-value tax deductions on donated works of art. For par tygoers, it's been an arid five years, when only the original purchase price was allowed as a tax deduction.
So gifts have been pouring in: the lush green canvas of Vincent Van Gogh's ``Roses,'' spilling over with masses of white petals so vibrant you can almost smell their scent (it's a partial and promised gift of Pamela Harriman in honor of W. Averell Harriman); Claude Monet's cloudy, sea-drenched view of ``Sainte-Adresse'' from Catherine Gambel Curran and Family; and Monet's sunny ``The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil'' rioting with dahlias (partial gift of Janice H. Levin).
Others included: ``Evening,'' a lyric Blake painting of a woman wrapped in light, given by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes; Rembrandt's compassionate etching ``The Return of the Prodigal Son'' in which the father welcomes home the son (a gift in memory of William S. Benedict by Ruth Benedict); and that landmark of modern art, Cezanne's ``Boy in a Red Waistcoat,'' the promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Two Rothko paintings throbbing with color - his ``White and Orange,'' and ``Red, Black, W hite and Yellow'' - are both promised gifts of Mrs. Mellon.
The gallery has also just unwrapped its very first Toulouse-Lautrec. His exuberant view of Paris nightlife in the 1890s, ``Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in `Chilp'eric,''' is one of the artist's best paintings. It is a gift (partial and promised) from Betsey Cushing Whitney in honor of John Hay Whitney. Another first for the gallery is one of Camille Pissarro's greatest paintings, ``Landscape at Les Patis, Pontoise,'' a serene green landscape under an intense blue sky full of whipped cream clouds. It is a gift (partial and promised) from Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller.
If this 50th-birthday collection had a motto, it could be taken from one of the gifts of artist Roy Lichtenstein and his wife. His cartoon painting titled ``Look, Mickey'' looks bizarre among the masterpieces. In it Donald Duck, fishing with Mickey Mouse, turns and says, ``Look Mickey, I've hooked a big one!!'' The National Gallery has hooked lots of big ones, from some of the most famous and generous collectors living in the United States and five other countries: Britain, France, Switzerla nd, Germany, and Brazil. Andrew Robison, the gallery's senior curator of prints and drawings, says ``It really is a national outpouring of love and support.'' He notes that although the gallery started with ``the inner circle'' of legendary donors like the Mellons, Betsey Whitney, and Robert Smith, 116 of the 164 donors at the opening were totally new. It is a measurement of the treasures here to discover that apart from artists mentioned above, works by Bellini, Pierre Bonnard, Calder, Carracci, Chagall, C onstable, Corot, Diebenkorn, Van Dyck, Gauguin, Walker Evans, Hans Hofmann, Winslow Homer, Paul Klee, K"athe Kollwitz, Fitz Hugh Lane, 'Edouard Manet, John Marin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Barnett Newman, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Renoir, Georges Rouault, Stieglitz, and Whistler are repesented.
Brown explains that it didn't start out as a birthday exhibition. ``I have to confess to you that no one is more surprised than I that this [50th anniversary] has made an exhibition at all, because when you think about it, we were really just asking for gifts, and it depended on what people had to give, and there was no inherent logic as to how one work of art would relate to another. And we hoped that if we put these few things up that it would not make a buzzing, blooming confusion.''
``What we have ended up with,'' he says, ``is a mini-history of art in all the fields in which we collect. And we were able to garner in such an extraordinary spectrum that it begins to make sense as an exhibition, and as objects always do, they set up a wonderful dialogue with each other.''
He is mainly right. It is fascinating, for instance, to view Blake's ``Evening'' and then trot over to see a similar, feathery light echoed nearly two centuries later in Susan Rothenberg's ``Boneman.'' But sometimes the dialogue is inaudible. Claes Oldenburg's ``Soft Drainpipe - Red (Hot) Version, l967'' hangs from its black metal rack like a body from a crucifix, though it has no resemblance to the spirituality of the rare 15th- and 16th-century pictures of crucifixions in the exhibition.
The exhibition is divided into five galleries, devoted to old masters, paintings, drawings, and prints; 19th century, American and European; 20th century works in all media; and art of the last decade.
A special section is devoted to what Mr. Robison says is ``one of the most extraordinary commitments of this anniversary:'' The Degas Waxes which are the promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. The Mellon commitment is almost half of the surviving 65 wax sculptures by Degas. These are the original sculptures, not the bronzes cast afterward, and they include Degas's beloved original wax of the 14-year-old dancer.
The final surprise in the exhibit is an Alexander Calder garden, high on the terrace, ``A Group of Ten Bent-Metal, Painted Sculptures,'' a gift of Mrs. Mellon. It includes a red cow, a blue horse, and a black camel. All 10 sculptures bloom wildly amid a bed of pondorea jasminoides.
The 550 works given to the National Gallery have also strengthened and supplemented its permanent collection, particularly in needed graphic, drawing, and print departments. The ``most crucial need'' said gallery deputy director Roger Mandle, was for a baroque painting, which it bought in London: Neapolitan painter Guiseppe Ribera's ``The Marytrdom of St. Bartholemew,'' was painted in 1634. The gallery's 50th Anniversary Gift Committee gave that painting, as well as four other gifts, including Wayne Thi baud's celebrated and inedible ``Cakes'' which has become a symbol of the celebration. In total, $l3 million has been contributed by donors in addition to works.
Gallery spokesmen were not reticent in their efforts to coax donors to make a down-payment on art immortality by giving partial or promised gifts. ``The museum has to to try to take a long view,'' Robison says. ``We have a long life and private collectors have a short life. So we work out a way where we can share the ownership.'' Director Carter Brown is cultivating that kind of sharing through this year. ``So if anyone is encouraged by this show to give us a Michelangelo, the gate is still open,'' Brow n says.