THERE is special intrigue about some of the paintings chosen by Ambassador Walter Annenberg, the publishing tycoon who is a celebrated art collector. It runs like a river through ``Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection,'' a sparkling exhibition here at the National Gallery. You can see it in ``At the Lapin Agile,'' the Picasso painting acquired by the Annenbergs last November for $40.7 million, the third highest price ever paid for a work of art.
Mr. Annenberg is interested not only in collecting works by important painters but in the subject of the work as well, points out the show's coordinator, Charles Moffett: ``He's drawn to the stories they tell, the themes they're about.''
National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown explains that the Picasso is not only one of the artist's best known works but ``has a blood-curdling story attached to it. It is based on a love story in which his friend, a [Spaniard], had a luncheon party in Paris and pulled out a pistol and shot the girl in the picture and then himself. The girl was only wounded. He died.
``Picasso did this picture on that theme,'' Mr. Carter Brown continues, ``putting himself in the form of the unrequited lover in this extraordinary Harlequin costume - which is that of the performer, the observer. So he's both outside and inside the picture at a nightclub he went to, the Lapin Agile.''
There are 53 other works in this exhibition, paintings of sumptuous beauty by C'ezanne, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Bonnard, Corot, Degas, Renoir, Morisot, Bracque, Seurat, and others.
Among the pictures that have stories behind their gold frames are Renoir's ``The Daughters of Catulle Mendes,'' his portrait of the pensive Eugene Murer, and Van Gogh's lilting ``Vase of Roses,'' notes Mr. Moffett, the gallery's senior curator of paintings.
One of the most enigmatic stories, as Carter Brown mentions, is the ``uncrackable puzzle'' of two Monet paintings of his wife, Camille. One of them is in the Annenberg collection and the other in the B"uhrle collection, which is the subject of a concurrent exhibition here [featured in article at right].
Brown says the B"uhrle and Annenberg pictures of Camille in a garden are mirror images of one another. ``I have a theory that [the B"uhrle painting] is a mourning picture. It has to do with the death of Camille's father. And in ... the Annenberg one, a neighbor comes over with condolences and a bouquet. In the [B"uhrle] one ... he's gone, and their child comes forward with a hope, ... a sense of a circle, with birth and death and another generation....''
The exhibition, which continues here through Aug. 5, also includes paintings of such stunning loveliness a story is only garnish. Among them are a rare signed and dated Monet ``Water Lilies''; C'ezanne's haunting ``The House With the Cracked Walls''; and one of C'ezanne's light-soaked Impressionist views of the Mont Sainte-Victoire.
The Annenberg collection was exhibited last summer in the ambassador's native city at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The National Gallery exhibition, however, includes three later acquisitions. The collection also reflects the taste of Annenberg's wife, Lenore, former US Chief of Protocol, and it includes 15 works bought for Enid Annenberg Haupt, Annenberg's sister.
Moffett likens the collection to a great musical composition, which ``rises and swells almost symphonically. There are echoes and themes which repeat. They come and go, not always predictably.''
After closing here, the show goes to the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (Aug. 16-Nov. 11), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (summer of 1991, dates not yet set).