If you doubt the Lincoln on the Mall is our finest public sculpture, visit it again. Ascend those awkward stairs (the climb's a kind of pligrimage), and when you reach the statue use your ears, not just your eyes.

Before that carving people whisper. Its greatness as a work of art - its apparent in the stillness that it cast.

Daniel Chester French, the man who made the Lincoln, would have shuddered had he seen the pimpled Kennedy in the Kennedy Center. French had a skill now lost. From the start he was able to express, in bronze or stone, shared national ideals. French was nearly 80 when he at last perfected the lighting of the Lincoln. He made the Minute Man in Concord, Mass., when he was 24.

Though millions know the still-be-loved monuments he gave us - the Harvard Yard's John Harvard, Columbia's "Alma Mater," the Dupont Circle fountain, the Gallaudet Memorial - his once-great fame has faded. "Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor," which goes on view today at the National Collection of Fine Arts, is to the first major exhibition ever given to his art.

Despite its many merits, it is not a knockout show. Monuments can only be suggested by models, photographs and drawings. This show presents a master, but to feel the full force of his mastery one must wander through the parks.

There are a dozen works by French displayed in this city. To see them as he placed them is a revelation. We have long been taught to snicker at eclectic Beaux Arts buildings and at the statues clad in togas that were made to grace them. The works of French epitomize that perhaps pretentious style, but they manage to transcend it. They speak past style to the heart.

"I say work from Nature, and improve on her, if you can," and French. He did exactly that. Like the sculptors of the Renaissance, like those of ancient Greece, French intensified the real to show us the ideal. His Lincoln is more noble than any politician; his allegorial women have a breathtaking grandeur in their beauty. Nineteenth-century Romantics thought artists ought to suffer. Daniel Chester French did not take the path.

Well-born, well-connected, he was successful from the start. (True, at MIT, he flunked physics, chemistry and algebra, but his failures were a victory. They got him out of school.) He was born in Exeter, N.H., in 1850. His father served for years as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury; his brother was the first director of the Art Institute of Chicago. French served the upper classes. His manners were impeccable. He was elected trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and appointed chairman of the National Commission of Fine Arts. He was - the phrase in his - "the biggest toad in the puddle." He worked had for his fame.

French was a perfectionists. He spent 13 years in Lincoln. "A statue goes very fast at the start," he said. "Within a few weeks it will, to everybody but the artist, look as if it were finished. It is trying to do a thing a little better than I know how that takes the time."

French was active in a day when statue popped up everywhere. The Civil War had much to do with it. Communities, in those days, memorialized their dead. Instead of beating swords into plowshares, connons were melted into statues. French produced 100 monuments of bronze and marble durng his career.

He did not carve, he modeled. Skilled workmen carved the stone and cast the metal for his statues. French gave them half-scale plaster casts he had cast from clay. Of the objects in this show, though many are much larger, none is more impressive than the palm-sized sketches of freely modeled clay with which has his art began.

French, who as a child had carved turnips in New Hampshire, thought in three dimensions. His art is wed to architecture. "The important thing," he said, "is not to find a site for a statue, but a statue for a site."

His Dupont Circle fountain was made to be approached from half a dozen radial roads. Though French had long since mastered the problems of the seated figure, his Lincoln on the Mall was enlarged, and then enlarged again, until it took command of that temple on the hill.

Despite their antique costumes and the accessories they carry, his statues are not silly. "I have a predilection for quiet things," said French. "The still subjects are the sculptural ones, the stiller the better." To stand before his statues is to feel that stillness. Their beauty is amazing. They touch us with their calm.

The exhibition was organized by Michael Richman, a young and gifted art historian who has written an exemplary catalog. The show, which has been in New York and wil travel to Detroit and Boston, is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservaion, which owns Chesterwood, the sculptor's Massachusetts home. The National Endowment for the Humanities contributed $200,000 towards the expenses of the exhibition, which includes the life-size bronze of Gallaudet from f florida Avenue NE, the sculptor's standing Lincoln and other heavy statues. It closes at the National Collection, 8th and G Streets, NW, on April 17.