PRINTS AND PERSONALITIES: The American Theater's First Hundred Years, through September 9 at the National Collection of Fine Arts, 8th and G Streets NW. Daily 10 to 5:30.

She was one of the first media hypes in this country.

Before she even reached these shores, posters heralding her arrival were plastered all over New York. Her legendary romantic conquests, including Franz Liszt and Germany's King Ludwig, did not sit well with the puritanical ethics of the USA. When she landed, the ladies boycotted her performances and snubbed her socially.

But American men loved her.

The satirical lithograph of her departure is comically romantic. "Lola Coming! Europe Farewell! America I Come," proclaims the poster, heralding the infamous Lola Montez (nee Marie Delores Gilbert in Ireland) as she sets sail from the Old World shores, a retinue of tearful monarchs in her wake. She bids adieu, precariously balanced on the rim of a boat, with a growling swan at the bow. A winged cherub bodyguard wields a drawn bow and arrow to restrain any impulsive land-bound admirers.

This is one of 61 lithographs and engravings from the exhibit "Prints and Personalities: The American Theater's First Hundred Years," at the National Collection of Fine Arts. The show is ostensibly a survey of early printmaking techniques, but the colorful subject matter makes it seem a who's who of the theater. Since there's little information on the actual proceeing of the engravings, chromolithographs and frontispieces exhibited, it's better to approach the exhibit as a jolly romp among the overly sentimental and romantic stars of yesteryear's melodramas.

Theater had a difficult start in this country. The Godfearing populace viewed the professional companies as a threat to morality, and few productions were seen before the mid-18th century. It was close to 1800 before the climate changed sufficiently to permit the appearance of small engraved portraits in frontispieces for published plays. The introduction of lithography into this country 20 years later coincided with a demand for theatrical prints.

The early works were loose and observatory, as with Michael Willaim's lithograph of English amateur actor Thomas Hilson, who played the lead in an extremely popular farce, "Paul Pry." It was of no consequence that this print, like many of the period, bore little resemblance to the stage personality.

As big posters and photograph took the place of printmaking in the years following the Civil War, the style tightened up considerably. The later works in this show demonstrate a photorealistic style based on daguerreotypes rather than artistic license. Montez and other dancers were no longer depicted with absurdly tiny pointed feet and breathtaking waists (minute even by Victorian standards).

But the satire did not stop: A portrait of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who promoted everything from baby beauty contests to freaks, graces a color lithograph connected with one of his enterprises. America's first impresario, surrounded by turkeys, chickens and peacocks, stares out from the cover of the songbook for "Barnum's Nationa Poultry Show Polka." CAPTION: Picture, "EUROPE, FAREWELL! AMERICA, I COME," A LITHOGRAPH BY AN UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST.