It was, after all, a dilemma. The 60odd black-tie dinner guests at the National Portrait Gallery Sunday evening had come in the name of art, it was true. But still it was Super Sunday, Dallas versus Denver, and even the purest of art lovers would be interested in that.

So while Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and Chief Justice Warren Burger and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin made their way through the cold veal and puree clamart (mashed peas sitting on exdive leaves), a waiter named Mike Higgins thoughtfully passed among them with a homemade scoreboard, exhibiting it like a prize fish.

Periodically Higgins would update the score (dispatches were coming from a portable TV in an anteroom), and this made everyone happy.

The occasion for the party was something far afield from football. John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), America's earliest master, was taking his place in the Gallery with a worldfamous self-portrait ("one of the greatest works of its kind in the history of Western art," Gallery officials described it), and some of Washington's mighty and wealthy had assembled --Super Bowl or not -- to view the painting and to thank the lady who had largely made it possible: Gwendolyn Cafritz of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

Mrs. Cafritz was ill with the flu, as it turned out (no one seriously thought she was home watching the game), and so reportedly were several others (the Smith Bagleys had been "iffy" all week, said one of the party hosts). But she was lauded for her philanthropy nonetheless by one and all, especially those who made formal remarks.

The smallish painting (round and 18 inches in diameter) hung in a room off the main hall. It was encased in a tasteful gold frame and set against brocade. During the cocktail hour Secretary Ripley -- who wore a canaryyellow blouse against his black tux --attempted his interpretation of the work.

"I consider it an A-1 document of an American artist painting himself," he said. He then noted that Copley had pictured himself looking off into the distance. "This painting has an eye, and the eye is the eye of reason --a[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] not of it, looking off to see what he will do next. The portrait speaks of speculation, of reason, of extreme thoughtfulness. To me, it's all very romantic."

Boorstin was more succinct. He said he had seen photographs of the portrait many times, but had been unprepared for its power and beauty on actually seeing it. "Well, I mean, the color alone . . ." he said, letting it go at that.

Carol Cutler, who handled arrangements for the party, said on Saturday that she had toyed briefly with installing a television for those interested in the game. "But I decided I couldn't do that," she said resolutely. "Nobody would have looked at my picture."