There is something marvelously modest about "Dutch Figure Drawings From the Seventeenth Century," the scholarly exhibit which goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art. Other shows of Dutch art which will open here this month--the Hirshhorn's huge display of utopian De Stijl art, or the gallery's exhibit of 40 mighty masterworks from the Mauritshuis, The Hague--may prove to be more dazzling. But none could tell us more about the character of Holland than this wholly unpretentious sleeper of a show.

Its drawings ring with truth. The figures we meet in them are not idealized Olympians or superhuman heroes, but folks from real life. Rough-featured young men yawn without embarrassment, or lean back in their chairs, or search their clothes for fleas. Fishermen show off their catch; gentlemen, at leisure, smoke their long clay pipes; peasants lean upon their staffs; musicians strum their lutes; tired housewives snooze.

Italian art is often filled with gods and saints and putti; creatures slightly spooky, witches and their allies, frequently cavort in old German drawings; the cleanly rendered figures in classical French art often seem portrayals of theoretical abstractions. But the Dutch artists we meet here, one of whom is Rembrandt, seem perfectly content to represent the Dutch.

Though the 116 drawings in this show almost never put on airs, some critics of the time objected to their honesty. One of these, the writer Jan de Bisschop, complained in 1668 that Dutch art was too raw, that it showed "almost nothing else but groups of beggars, cripples, hunchbacks and destitutes, brothels filled with filth, drunken parties of gluttonous peasants in many ways much too dirty to be described in words." That is not the way we see these pictures now. To modern eyes these drawings seem deeply democratic and thoroughly humane.

The draftsmen represented (a few of them are famous, many more are hardly known) tried hard to love high art. Rembrandt, for example, spent countless hours studying the prints and master paintings placed upon the block in the salesrooms of Amsterdam.

And many of his colleagues traveled south to Italy to study the antique. Johannes Lutma the Younger, for instance, is represented here by a careful study of a famous ancient statue, the Hercules Farnese, which he had seen in Rome. But when they turned to drawing, these artists shied from the ideal.

Rembrandt, at his mirror, sketched his reflection, or turned to draw his wife, Saskia, asleep. When artist Jan van Bouckhorst struck a pose of pride for his strong self-portrait, he did not deign to hide the stubble on his unshaven chin. These Dutchmen rarely beautify. Uncomfortable with fawning, at ease with one another, they show us what they see.

Details delighted them. Jan Both seems ravished by the droop of a floppy boot, Nicolaes Berchem takes as much delight in the texture of a vest of fur, and Johannes Lingelbach makes us see the structure of a straw fish basket. And in almost every drawing here one feels the pale beauty of Holland's silver light. Draftsmanship so skillful required years of study. These artists, it is clear, copied prints and drawing books, studied antique statues (and skinned corpses, too), and, once their skills were mastered, began to draw from life.

By 1594, three of them, Hendrick Goltzius, Karel van Mander and Cornelius van Haarlem, had formed a small academy where they could draw from nudes. The exhibition opens with a sensual and sexy nude by Goltzius which probably was drawn one day in that academy.

No part of the show is more telling or impressive than the wall of drawings devoted to the work of Pieter Lastman and his two well-known students, Jan Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn. One of Lievens' drawings shows an old, white-bearded man lost in quiet thought. Beside it is a Rembrandt, a drawing in red chalk, which seems to be a portrait of the same old model. Fourteen Rembrandt drawings are included in the show.

Rembrandt's special qualities, his fluid line, all-seeing eye and rightly judging heart, have been celebrated often. One virtue of this show is that it takes his genius and places it in context. His drawings here are flanked by those of his teachers and his students, too.

Many of these drawings were made in preparation for finished oil paintings. One such oil painting, "The Hut" (1671) by Adriaen van de Velde, is included in this show. Beside it are four sketches from which the artist drew. These drawings may be minor works but they seem more beautiful than the painting they produced.

A sense of speed and freedom, a looseness of the wrist, enlivens this exhibit. Mondrian may love the grid, Vermeer may love it, too; the Dutch, it's often claimed, are moved by their flat land and the look of verticals against its clean horizons. Though Cornelius Bega's "Side View of a Seated Woman" stands out as an exception, tightly ordered drawings obedient to strict measure are almost never seen in this exhibition.

Twentieth-century Dutch artists, as the De Stijl show will demonstrate, often have paid homage to the strength of the right angle. But 17th-century life was not ruled by the grid, and the spirit of that Golden Age, with all its messiness and honesty, rules this lovely show.

The catalogue, a work of admirable scholarship, was written by Peter Schatborn, curator of drawings at the Riksmuseum. He picked 100 drawings. Andrew Robison, the gallery's curator of prints and drawings, and Arthur K. Wheelock, its curator of Dutch paintings, selected 16 more. Their exhibition, on view in the East Building, closes June 13.