MOST ARTISTS never get rich or famous. Most work hard, teach in order to survive, and die owning the most of the art they have made. So it can be a sobering experience to confront what an artist has left behind.

Such a confrontation has been going on over the past year in the studio of well-known Washington artist and teacher Leonard Maurer, who died in 1976 at the age of 64. Maurer left no fewer than 550 paintings and thousands of drawings, prints, watercolors, collages and woodblocks -- most of them never seen by the public. Only his prints, in his late years, were exhibited at the Bader Gallery.

Because Maurer died without the benefit or honor of a museum retrospective (though he surely deserved one), his life and art had not been properly sorted, exhibited and assessed by scholars and critics. Thus in the public recollection, there remained little beyond the dim idea that he had done woodcuts of birds and nature themes, and a few portraits of writers -- also as woodcuts -- but no larger perception of what Maurer's art really meant.

What Maurer had, however, was a devoted heir (his nephew Patrick Thomas) and an extraordinary circle of devoted friends who formed The Maurer Charitable Trust, determined "to do for Leonard what he had been too shy to do for himself -- to get his art out where people could see it." That Herculean task came to fruition last week in the simultaneous opening of three exhibitions of Maurer's work at the Phillips Collection, the Watkins Art Gallery at American University and the Franz Bader Gallery.

Equally important for posterity is the concurrent publication of a fine monograph, "Homages: The Art of Leonard Maurer" published by the Trust, meticulously researched by Maurer's friend, writer Marion D. Wechsler, and masterfully written by his colleague, painter Ben Summerford. A poster bearing Maurer's most famous image, a woodcut portrait of James Joyce, also has been published. It is an effort any artist could envy. At last one can begin to perceive the depth and breadth of the supremely literate, dedicated and extraordinary gifted colorist and draftsman.

What emerges is still an incomplete picture of the artist, but it is at least a start. It is now clear that Maurer, who followed no school and started none, produced a formidable body of work with high points in a variety of media.

But it was in the black-and-white drawings, watercolors and woodcuts that he had his most sustained success, and these are the subject of the best show by far, at American University. Everything on view there is first-rate, due in large part to the sharp critical eye of Ben Summerford, who made the selection. It is the sort of show every artist needs to make and keep a reputation, but which Maurer never had in his lifetime.

Of course, he was not ignored here. In fact, his rise was remarkable considering his late start. He was nearly 30 when, after spending the Depression years as a bookseller in his native Newark, N.J., he began sketching while serving as a map sergeant in World War II. "Drawing kept me sane," he often said. After the war, he came to Washington to work for the Army Map Service, studying art by night at the Phillips Gallery School and at the Concoran. He was 40 when he finally was graduated from American University with highest distinction in art.

As a student at both the Phillips and the Corcoran, he had shown frequently in Corcoran Area shows and one Biennial. And no less a critic than Duncan Phillips had selected him for inclusion in one traveling show of Washington and Baltimore painters while his work was being circulated abroad in another show of Washington art. One year after graduation he had the first of two one-man shows at the Corcoran Gallery.

By the early '50s, with a new wife, a teaching job at Mt. Vernon College and a dealer -- Franz Bader, who was running the only show in town at the time -- Maurer seemed to be on his way. The Washington art scene was small and provincial at the time, but Maurer was clearly carving out a niche.

But 10 years later, just when the sky seemed to be the limit, it fell in; and Maurer, like many other middle-aged artists at the time, found himself beached by the new waves of the '60s. In an age that glorified the new for its own sake, Maurer worshiped the old -- the great books, art, architecture and humanist goals of the past.

And in an age where collectors chose to be chic even if intimidated by the new art, Maurer still sought to communicate his love for the forces of nature -- flowers trees, birds, the sea. "The morning after a night's snow and a summer's evening of fireflies are enough wonder for a year," he wrote in a 1954 sketchbook. The reverence and mystery he felt were not shared by many collectors -- and by virtually no curators -- in the late '60s, when "nature" painting of any sort was often regarded as something of a joke, best left to the proliferating amateurs.

In the early '70s, Maurer's reputation began to blossom again with the series of woodcut portraits of famous authors, including Joyce, Chekhov, Proust and Faulkner, but he died soon thereafter. Had he continued to work with such a high level of success, there is little doubt that he would found the newly independent audiences and more binocular curators more hospitable. It had begun to happen: The Joyce print was a sellout, one of very few in his lifetime.

The problem with Maurer's art -- as Summerford makes clear in his catalogue essay -- is that he never landed on one "style" and stuck with it. For that he has been praised by some critics and chided by others. A young artist prowling the show at the Phillips last Sunday afternoon, however, felt nothing but admiration: "I think it's incredible that he had the courage to try so many different things."

Summerford puts it this way: "An artist is that he is. He is both weak and strong. He makes decisions fluidly in some areas and is stuck with indecision in others. There does not exist, in my view, the perfect artist -- that paragon who makes no mistakes, takes no wrong turns. This is no apology for Leonard Maurer. It is simply a statement of the risk we each take as artists -- the risk of finding out what we are."

There are several beautiful paintings at the Phillips, ranging from the exuberant "Pertaining to April" to the poignant "Death of the Poet Lorca," one of many works reflecting Maurer's profound interest in literature. "He was," recalls critic Frank Getlein, "the most literate artist I ever knew."

Though through these exhibitions we are given an opportunity to become acquainted with the many facets of Maurer's work -- including his endless technical and stylistic experimentation and search for expressive symbols -- we are still not quite clear from this three-part effort where he stands in the pantheon of recent American art, or how he might best be categorized. One is left feeling the need for one more coherent show in one place which takes the marvelous sketchbooks into account. The Maurer Trust no doubt will look to this question.

In Maurer's work, several styles and technical struggles go on simultaneously, and he further evades a neat chronology by constantly going back to rework earlier projects. Inevitably, a room full of his paintings or drawings or prints looks like a group show. It can be said that both cubism and expressionism are persistent strains in his work -- existing in variations between the poles of realism and abstraction, falling most confortably into that vast in-between called semi-abstraction.

Nonetheless, Maurer never ceased to search for a distinctive style, or set of symbols, by which he could express and share his perceived "essences." One characteristic mode emerged in his paintings of 1959-60, based on a technique he had been using for years in his drawings -- cross-hatched lines, an ancient method of rendering here translated into the modern vernacular by its improvisational stream-of-consciousness impulse.

Of several paintings done in this style of "found" images, one of the most successful is the large "Red Owl" at the Phillips. It is a momunental manifestation of this technique, a sort of meditation on life, an homage to the larger natural forces of which Maurer sought to be a part.

"Perhaps most of my work can be considered as homage," he once said, "to the creater of the past, to nature, to the things which make it possible to survive the morning newspaper. If some of it conveys my delight in these, then I feel I may have a brief moment in the lineal brotherhood which speaks across time without concern for fashion or newness."