POST-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting: 1880-1906," which goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art, is a summer exhibition both subtle in its scholarship and stunning in its impact. At its center is a gallery that seems to be a hall of fame set aside for painters of the highest popularity. We know their work from postcards, lecture halls and calendars. This room is their shrine.

Here green-eyed Vincent van Gogh, a bandage wrapped around his mutilated ear, confronts us from the center of a whole wall of van Goghs. Here, amidst as lavish a display of Paul Gauguins, "Annah the Javanese" reigns in unclothed majesty while a pensive orange monkey guards her sea-blue throne. Here, too, are the late paintings of the master Paul Cezanne, his bathers and his apples and his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. Nearby, in static grandeur, hang Seurat's frieze-like landscapes, pictures airy and imposing, built of tiny points of color. The viewer's eye, now overwhelmed, does not know where to rest, but this room offers more: a wall of late Monets, his water lilles, haystacks, poplars and cathedrals; here, too, are the dance hall girls and harlots of Toulouse-Lautrec.

So many revered icons of early modern art will not be seen together here in one room soon again.

Works able to compete with pictures of such eminence are not easy to imagine, but in surrounding galleries this show offers many -- some by younger masters -- Picasso, for example, Vuillard and Matisse -- and others made by painters whose names are less familiar because they worked in Italy and Belgium, Switzerland and Norway. Among the many virtues of this exhibition is that it brings to our attention unexpected show-stoppers too long overlooked.

"The Fourth Estate" is one of them. It was painted by Pellizza, the Italian Divisionist Paul Serusier's "The Talisman," "Skeleton Studying Chinoiseries" by James Ensor of Belgium, "The Dance of Life" by Norway's Edvard Munch, and "Pardon in Brittany," a remarkable salon picture by Gaston La Touche, may not overwhelm the masterworks displayed in the central gallery -- this revisionist exhibit does not revise that racically -- but they are not embarassed by that $5.2 million van Gogh (with its blocky lovers) or by the other pictures in that room of Cezannes and Gauguins.

It is possible that fame has done these masters a disservice. It is no longer easy to see their pictures freshly. Their familiarity is numbing. We tend to greet them now, contentedly, uncritically, as we would old friends. But when the English critic Roger Fry first displayed van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin and other Post-Impressionists -- in London's Grafton Galleries in the fall of 1910 -- that was not the case. These now-soothing pictures still possessed, in those days, what Fry's friend, Virginia Woolf, called "the astonishing power to enrage."

We approach them now with piety. They then made Britons splutter. Here is Leon Edel on the famous "Artquake of 1910" that Fry's show provoked: "Sir Charles Holmes accused the painters of gaining simplicity by throwing overboard "The long-developed skills of past artists. . . .' Sir William Richmond said that Fry was leading a bunch of asses -- 'exactly his right place.' The abuse mounted. 'A bloody show,' said the freewheeling Augustus John. John Singer Sargent had a frown on his face. He was 'absolutely skeptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art.' He did have a word of praise for Gauguin's colors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, imaginative enough to have created Sherlock Holmes, could not find the imagination for Post-Impressionism. . . . The painters were rogues and charlatans. They were quite mad. Wilfred Blunt considered the show a bad joke, even a swindle. He called it 'pornographic.'"

The label, "Post-Impressionists," meant nothing to the artists to whom it is applied. It was Fry who coined the term. He considered calling them the "Expressionists," but that did not sound right, and "Synthesists," he felt, sounded just a bit "too much like the hiss of an angry gander." "Oh, let's just call them Post-Impressionists," Fry, at last, suggested. "At any rate, they came after the Impressionists."

No word less vague is broad enough to cover all the styles embraced by all the painters, many far from famous, whose works are in this show. It includes nine Cezannes, 15 van Goghs, 16 Gauguins and 11 Seurats -- these are the central figures. To see so many pictures by so many masters is, of course, a joy; but what makes this exhibition so useful and important is the unfamiliar context into which it puts their art.

More than 100 other artists are represented in this show. Many of the best of them -- Morbelli, Segantini, Khnopff, Anshutz . . . and Balla, Boccioni, Dewing, Eakins, van de Velde, Toorop . . . and O'Conor, Lavery and Stott -- worked outside of France.

These less familiar artists are not merely here as footnotes. Emile Bernard, for instance, and Paul Serusier, provide two of the most important objects in this show.

Bernard was a friend of Gauguin -- they planned to go together to Madagascar and Tahiti -- and it was a Bernard, "Breton Women at a Pardon" of 1888, that helped spark the mature style of Gauguin. In turn, it was Gauguin who, goading Serusier, provoked the lesser painter into the creation of one of the most beautiful, and most influential, paintings on display.

It is called "The Talisman." Maurice Denis records Gauguin demanding of Serusier, "How do you see that tree? It's green? Then choose the most beautiful green on your palette. . . . And this shadow? It's more like blue. . . ." The little picture that resulted, a proto-Cubist, proto-Fauvist, proto-abstract work, touched Bonnard and Vuillard, and through them, young Matisse. Its uncanny power echoes through this show.

There is a real sense in which this exhibition is not one show -- but two, simple on one level, complex on the next. The viewer seeking masterworks may not notice at first glance the complicated network of interlocking essays, conjunctions and comparisons, that exists beneath the surface of this well-chosen show.

How did Brittany affect such innovative artists as the young Matisse, and how did that oft-visited vacation land for painters, with its oysters and its peasants, piety and poverty, set Gauguin on the voyage that would lead to the South Seas? How did Whistler and Gauguin, Forbes-Robertson and Cross, Khnopff and Signac, respond to Japan's art? In what subtle ways was the pointillism of Seurat altered by Signac, van de Velde, Toorop, van Rysselberghe, and the Divisionists of Italy? How long did it take Vuillard, whose great virtue is humility, to free himself at last from the fiery colors sent into his art by the powerful examples of Serusier and Gauguin. What is the uncanny link between "Steel Workers at Noontime," a work by Anshutz, Eakins' teacher, and that huge Pellizza? What conventions link the radicals with the salon painters of France? Answers to these questions, and to many more, are suggested by the pictures in this well-selected show.

Somehow Carter Brown, the gallery's director, put this show together in just 100 days following the cancellation of the Hermitage exhibit that was to have been on view here all summer. Brown's Post-Impressionist exhibition is an improved, sharpened version of the larger, far more messy show that was organized last fall in London at the Royal Academy of Arts. The installation there was muddled; here Leithauser and Ravenel, as ususal, have put the works upon the wall in a sequence that makes sense. The London show, however, had a catalogue (edited by John House and Mary Anne Stevens) that puts to shame the one accompanying the exhibition here.

Few chapters of art history are as tangled, as confusing, as the one this show does its best to cover. It is certain to confound those who like to think that the history of art is a linear development in which the work began that one. The themes that underlie this show twist and turn, double back upon themselves, sometimes contradict each other. Fry's label is still used because no term less vague is broad enough to be applied to all of the paintings in this show.

And yet there is something that all these artists share. All of them were fighting, in one way or another, to get out from under the dead hand of the past. "They came," said Fry (who, by the way, has a picture in this show), "after the Impressionists," and they went beyond them. The Impressionists of France were scientists of vison, realists at heart. They set out to record, accurately, faithfully, the fleeting light of nature. The Post-Impressionists, in contrast, were fighting to escape what Alan Bowness calls "the cul-de-sac of naturalism." They painted what they felt -- not only what they saw.

Many were the paths that these artists followed in their search for "the emotional significance that lies in things." Van Gogh expressed the fever of his thoughts in the rhythms of his brush strokes and the fire of his colors. oThe late Degas, and Cezanne, too, Seurat and Pissaro, and to some degree Monet, worked out systems for applying paint that broke down old solidities while they reinforced the flatness of the canvas. Gauguin flattened forms as well and filled his works with mysteries rarely seen in nature -- but broad statements such as these, as this exhibition everywhere reminds us, are, at best, half true.

The colors of van Gogh are not always searing. He is represented here by "Rain" of 1899, a picture that is painted in the gentlest of hues. Not all of Gauguin's pictures are mysterious and exotic. "The Ham," for example, is a non-exotic subject for a work of art.

The present show, though scholarly -- the walls labels by House and Stevens are both terse and useful -- is not too didactic. It makes sublte points, it unravels tangled issues, but always as it does so it brings joy to the eye -- that Gauguin self-portrait, that Manet in the next room, the lighthouse of Seurat, and his "Couple Walking," the Cezanne "Mont Sainte-Victoire," the reaper of van Gogh, that summarizing Munch, that peculiar Vuillard in which his bowing sister seems to move into the wall, the astonishing twin sailors of the young Matisse -- this show feasts the eye. Many of the pictures here are still in private hands; 170 lenders have contributed their paintings to this exhibition. It deserves to be seen often. c

For people who like pictures these are splendid weeks in Washington. The Luminists are still on view in the Gallery's West Building, the Hirshhorn is now offering a survey of New York painting of the 1950s, and "American Portrait Drawings," a beautiful exhibit, is at the National Portrait Gallery. The General Telephone and Electronics Corp. helped pay for "Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting, 1880-1906" which will remain on view in the Gallery's East Building through Sept. 1.