It was as if some idol, some rare and rarely seen icon of art history had appeared among us. Willem de Kooning, America's Dutch master, the last surviving giant of the New York School, moved yesterday through Washington in strange and quiet triumph.

Limousines were readied, doors to power opened. The silver-haired old painter--who almost never speaks, but almost always smiles--was guided through the city, from the White House to the Capitol, from museum to museum, in a kind of regal progress. He wore a silver-colored necktie and a suit of blue. The thongs of his old moccasins were splattered with the oil paints whose colors he likes best, pinks and grays and yellows. Though his visit seemed as tightly planned as one by a head of state, or the Rolling Stones, it was never certain. Until the last minute, with the helicopter waiting by his studio in East Hampton, said a member of his entourage, "it was still touch and go."

Though for 20 years or longer the famous action painter has been the art world's best-known recluse, his exile is cracking. Last month he was pictured--with Paul McCartney--on the cover of ARTNews. Last night he appeared at the Kennedy Center for the hour-long film portrait, "de Kooning on See DE KOONING, D3, Col. 1 DE KOONING, From D1 de Kooning," about his life in art. His name is in the textbooks, his best pictures sell for millions. Now, at 77, de Kooning seems to be ready for his fame.

In the 1940s he hung out with artists in New York cafeterias. In the 1950s, with his reputation growing and his finances improving, he had the cash to drink at Manhattan's Cedar Bar. Then suddenly he vanished. Yesterday, in Washington, he reemerged.

The helicopter took him to the Islip airport, the pilots on the jet let him ride in the cockpit. The medal and the movie, so his wife suggested, lured him into town.

The medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was awarded to de Kooning in the early 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson. De Kooning took it home to his studio in Long Island, and then it disappeared. Yesterday morning, at the White House, he was presented with a duplicate struck for the occasion. George Bush shook his hand.

Then the black folk art show at the Corcoran, a visit to Tip O'Neill, who hugged the artist's daughter, Lisa, 26, then Rodin at the National Gallery, then the Hirshhorn.

It is far from easy to conduct a conversation with de Kooning. Occasionally he offers a pleasantry or two. "Joe Hirshhorn," said de Kooning, "visited my studio two weeks before he died. He seemed in perfect health."

"It took 18 months of courtship before he let me bring my film crew to his studio," said Courtney Sale, who produced "de Kooning on de Kooning," screened here last night.

De Kooning, in the 1950s, seemed a special kind of hero who, though he could draw as sweetly as the masters, had made war on sweetness. In doing so he had helped to whip the ancient art of painting into realms of active energy it had not touched before. Young artists by the thousands followed where he led. Most of them felt forced to choose between two mighty masters, Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, allies and yet enemies, who in those days seemed to wrestle like demigods of old on the highest peaks of art. Pollock, so the story went, had chosen pure abstraction and the open, painted field, while de Kooning had refused, in keeping with his ancestry, totally to abandon the woman and the sea and the figurative in art.

Pollock seemed the winner, at least for a while. The cool and open painting that prospered in the '60s seemed proof of his triumph, and his violent death, like that of David Smith and Mark Rothko, helped to spur his fame. But de Kooning kept on working, and kept on setting anchors--the woman and the landscape--in his seas of paint. His art slumped for a bit, he made some meretricious pictures and strange galumphing statues, but then, in the mid-'70s, his painting soared again.

The return of his wife, Elaine--for two decades they'd lived apart--may have helped his art. The knowledge that young painters were leaving pure abstraction for gesture and the figure may have lent him vigor. "De Kooning on de Kooning" portrays an aging artist who, after years of struggle, has found his strength again.

To those who've tried, with small success, to draw the master out, the movie will appear to be a kind of minor miracle. De Kooning, in the flesh, seems to be inhabiting another distant world. But de Kooning, in the film, is seen painting at his easel, and there his gaze grows hard, he snaps into full focus, the muscles of his jaw twitch with concentration, he is suddenly alive.

Paint tubes, trowels, brushes, are clutched between the fingers of his Dutch sea captain's hands. We see him pick his weapon, walk up to his canvas, lash out at it and mark it with a slashing, Zen-like gesture of astonishing velocity--and then retreat to safety to see what he has done. He paces back and forth in the angular and airy studio he designed like a tiger in a cage.

Paintings outlive painters. We feel we know van Gogh, but we know nothing of his voice. This portrait of de Kooning will some day take its place among those too-brief films of Picasso drawing bulls and Pollock casting paint. Its usefulness, its poignance, is certain to increase in decades to come.

The best thing in the movie is the moment of the knee. That 1959 footage shows de Kooning drawing, a sign-painter's brush in hand, the figure of a woman. It happens in an instant. With one flick of his wrist, he brings into existence her lower leg, her calf and the rounded sharpness of her knee.

He was "the best," he tells us, in his art school in Holland, and we see the academic still lifes that he made when he was 12. He speaks about the steamship on which he stowed away on his voyage to Hoboken (he nearly picked a boat bound for South America). He recalls his first glimpse of Times Square ("I flipped," says de Kooning.) Using yellowed photographs to summon them to memory, he speaks about his long dead friends, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky ("the evening that we met, we almost had a fist-fight"), and about the women he has loved. ("My first lady friend," he says, smiling at her photograph, "was a tightrope walker.")

He talks about Matisse ("Matisse had no ism") and laughs at Michelangelo's view of the Dutch masters. He speaks about the money, the $23.86 he received each week from the U.S. government during the Depression, and about his muse. The film has one flaw. It tells us more about the man than it does about his art.

Paintings, for some reason, pale in the movies. The camera robs them of their scale and dissipates their vigor. We glimpse nearly 100 pictures by the master in this friendly portrait, but each is on the screen for only a few seconds, and few of them look grand. Charlotte Zwerin, the director, has tried to give them life, but with small success. The restless in-and-out zooming of the lens, and the tweeting spaceship-landing music on the soundtrack (by Bob Sakayama) does nothing to enhance them. They cannot shake the tired look of transparencies projected in some darkened college lecture hall where students fall asleep.

From what source does he draw his energy, his passion? "I make a picture, then I finish it, then I make another," he says. Yet the energy exists. For more than half a century, it has crackled in his art.

"De Kooning on de Kooning" will be shown tomorrow, April 1 and 3 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and will be broadcast on PBS at 10 p.m. on Monday, May 10.