IT might be called ``The Case of the Jolly Flatboatmen,'' since there is sometimes as much intrigue in the art world as in politics. This 19th-century American painting hangs in a place of honor outside the entrance to the new exhibition ``American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection,'' which opened recently at the National Gallery of Art here. The $6 million painting by George Caleb Bingham is now on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manoogian's collection. But the question of whether it will ever hang in the permanent collection of the National Gallery is as much of an enigma as the ``Mona Lisa's'' smile.
``The Jolly Floatboatmen'' floats in front of rooms full of American paintings by artists as diverse as Frederick Church, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and Maurice Prendergast. But these other paintings from the Manoogian collection, however treasured, are secondary to the extraordinary web of events which resulted in the ``Flatboatmen'' staying safe in the National Gallery harbor for now.
This ``American masterpiece,'' as National Gallery director J. Carter Brown describes it, was loaned to the museum in 1956. But in 1986 Mr. Brown suddenly learned that it was up for sale at a price beyond the gallery's funds and might disappear from public view into a private collection. He vaulted into action, he says, because ``it is a great piece of Americana. ... Bingham is very rare and very prized, and this is not one of the later representations of this theme, which tend to be a little more mechanical.'' Brown adds, ``I think anyone who's ever read `Huckleberry Finn' finds that it strikes exactly the note of American innocence in its heartland at the middle of the last century. It has enormous power compositionally, building in its apex like a Pouissant.''
What Carter Brown reportedly did was travel to Grosse Pointe, Mich., to see Richard Manoogian, a trustee of the National Gallery, and discuss the already scheduled Manoogian collection show. Mr. Manoogian, who is on the gallery's trustees' council, is an American industrialist whose Armenian immigrant father designed the Delta faucet.
While talking about the upcoming show with Manoogian, a collector particularly interested in 19th-century art like Bingham's, Brown mentioned that this prized Bingham was coming on the market. It was quietly up for sale by the family of Brown's friend Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.
Brown confirms that he was involved in the negotations that followed ``as a sort of intermediary,'' with the result that the painting returned to the gallery on loan. ``Yes, we want it for the gallery's permanent collection,'' Brown says, but he refuses to confirm or deny that it will end up there. ``Specific arrangments are something that Mr. Manoogian prefers, as a matter of policy, not to comment on.''
Manoogian talked with this writer about the Bingham coup, as he sat in the gallery across from two of his Childe Hassam paintings. ``I don't think there's any painting more than `The Jolly Flatboatmen' that reflects the expansion and enthusiasm that was taking place in the country at that time,'' he said. ``And, frankly, when it looked like the picture was going to be sold, I thought it would be a great loss not to see that picture continuing to be exhibited publicly. So I acquired it and have it on long-term loan with the National Gallery.''
Does he have specific plans for it to become part of the permanent collection of the gallery? ``Well, we have no commitments. But it's on long-term loan here, and it wouldn't surprise me if it ended up here. It wouldn't surprise me.''
Sixty-two other paintings are included in the Manoogian collection, which is having its first public exhibition in this show organized by the National Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Landscapes loom large on its horizon, from the Hudson River to the Grand Canyon, in paintings by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Moran, and John Frederick Kensett.
There are also still lifes by Raphaelle Peale, William Michael Harnett, and John Haberle; Impressionist paintings by Theodore Robinson, Frank Benson, and John Twachtman; and portraits by Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Eakins.
Nicolai Cikovsky, the National Gallery's curator of American art, who coordinated this exhibition at the gallery, said, ``It's a comprehensive survey of American painting over a hundred years (1814-1920), a rather remarkable one in capsule form. ... But it really is emphatically one man's reading of the history of American art. What I think is remarkable, what's distinctive about the Manoogian collection is how it ranges so widely from the canonic to the offbeat, the mainstream to the idioyncratic - and I mean that as a compliment - from famous paintings by famous artists ... to less familiar paintings by well-known names ... to captivating paintings by artists few people may have ever heard of. It's a collection that contains masterpieces but it's not in the ordinary sense a masterpiece collection. It's exceptional the number of museum-quality pictures that it has ..., but it never loses, I think, its essential flavor and character as a private, more personally determined collection.''
A viewer may be delighted by the sunny blue exuberance of Childe Hassam's flag-flying ``Country Fair, New England,'' or George Inness's haunting landscape ``A Breezy Autumn,'' or the grave-eyed little boy who is the subject of John Singer Sargent's ``John Alfred Parsons Miller'' portrait, or ``The Gems of Brazil,'' a rare and lovely set of 16 oils by Martin Johnson Heade, which are studies of hummingbirds more lushly romantic than any Audubons. Or a viewer may be startled by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's ``The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix,'' in which a bloodied bear sits facing a disarmed hunter while a second man draws a bead on the bear with his rifle. It looks more like a Wilderness Society campaign poster than a museum prize.
The Manoogian collection can be seen at the National Gallery through Sept. 4. Then it travels to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, Sept. 23-Nov. 26; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Dec. 19-Feb. 25, 1990; and the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 27-May 27, 1990. Its corporate sponsor is United Technologies Corporation.