"He looks like my former husband," declared Alice Bushnell upon close inspection of Benjamin West in self-portrait, circa 1770, black hat in the style of Rubens pulled to the side. "He has the same nose."

Well, he should. Bushnell's former husband, Robert West Beyers, is a descendant of Benjamin West, the very influential -- and good-looking -- American artist whose work was on display last night at the opening of "Benjamin West and His American Students" at the National Portrait Gallery.

Dorinda Evans, guest curator, eagerly wrote down names and phone numbers of West progeny that Bushnell gave her.

"He liked his students very much," said Evans of West, who left his native Pennsylvania for London early in adulthood and struck it good there. "He didn't feel insecure around them. He knew he was a history painter. That's why he could praise Gilbert Stuart as a portrait painter. He even found rooms for some of his students to live in."

Guests wandered through the uncrowded rooms, listening to live string music, taking in the paintings (not all portraits) which are full of drama -- outstretched arms here, a battle scene there, an engaging 18th-century visage somewhere else.

"This is one of our showier shows," said National Portrait Gallery associate curator Monroe Fabian.

Indeed. Only minutes before, one guest had glanced down an elegant archway of a corridor and exclaimed, "This is a great museum, but, God, I get tired of the portraits."

"She thought some of the portraits should be cleaned," said Bronwyn Loring, sister to Evans, a professor of American art and architecture at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The Brillo pad does wonders," quipped Fabian.

Evans brushed it off. "Oh, the cleaning was a minor issue."

Actually the only crowd last night formed around a table laden with luscious meats and dried fruits, pecan and cranberry tarts. "I really have to stop doing this," said the gallery's Sandra Westin, who recreated 18th-century menus and centerpiece for the food part of the reception. "No one goes to the exhibit."

Marvin Sadik, ever the graceful host, greeted his guests:

"Yes, I see the freeloaders have arrived," he boomed to Charles Parkhurst, assistant director of the National Gallery.

And to his doctor, Wesley Ober: "Shouldn't you be in bed, old boy?"

"I only go to openings that I have to go to," Sadik announced to one group.

But he goes to a lot. Displaying his tuxedo jacket, lined in flashy red, he commented, "I have three of these that I rotate."