The National Gallery previewed its big "American Light, followed by a dinner with such typical American dishes as lobster, squash and venison.

They wanted to have a baked Alaska, but the fire marshal wouldn't let them -- all that flaming brandy -- so they settled for a sort of meringue floating in a yellow sea of custard, somewhat revolting to look at but joy-joy to eat.

People who know everything about American art (such as it is) are called Americanists, and one dazzling couple were the Andrew Olivers of Boston. Oliver was the first trustee of the Boston Athenaeum to suggest selling the portraits of George and Martha Washington.

They had hung in the cloakroom and nobody paid any attention to them until the idea of selling them arose, and then the dam broke. Oliver thinks they probably belong in Washington. Boston, after all (not that he said so) is only named for a tea party.

Sen. Claiborne Pell arrived late, with the virtuous and unarguable excuse of Senate labors. But he said the bill extending the life of the National Endowments (for arts and humanities) passed in five minutes. "It used to take two days and it shows the increased acceptance of arts in the national life."

At his table people agreed women should not be shot at in the Army, but maybe should register for the draft. People thought of Walter Cronkite, the newscasters -- behold how the glory of this world fadeth. Inflation was, perhaps, too bitter a topic for anyone to raise, but in many other areas the world was settled two or three times before coffee.

Robert Amory, who is retiring from the gallery's board was the object of many sad congratulations. He has always been a historian at heart. He did notice, early in life, that men with advanced degrees were fighting for poor jobs in bad colleges, and turned to law. But now he will turn back to history and write monographs.

Oliver spoke a bit about the boundlessness of even the most careful scholarship. In his own case he would no sooner complete a book about, say, all known portraits of John Marshall, than he would start getting letters from people in God knows where, enclosing a dim snapshot of their treasured portrait of Marshall.

"All to the good," he said. "You'd think you had combed the world, but here would be another, and that's fine -- now we know."

The new president of the gallery's board, John R. Stevenson of New York, welcomed guests.

"I wish I had invested more in these pictures," he said, possibly thinking of the great prices these American landscapes now sell for.One turns to competent critics to evaluate them as art, of course, but for purposes of brief description they run to haystacks and sunsets and they are just dandy, and you may think you have often seen them in past years in junk shops.

All it takes is a little consciousness raising.