Art about art is not new.

For centuries, painters learned by imitating their predecessors. More recently, Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa and unleashed a whole school of Pop artists -- including Larry Rivers and John Clem Clarke -- whose takeoffs of famous paintings became their stock-in-trade.

Peter Thomas, former dean of the Corcoran School of Art, also uses art from the past, but with a difference.

In his new cycle of large drawings at the Athenaeum in Alexandria, he has approached 54 different 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints (known as Ukiyo-e) not for the purpose of imitating or deriding them, but rather to "perform" them -- much as a musician might perform the work of composer John Cage. Starting with a few basic givens (here, specific images from 19th-century Japanese Kabuki theater, tea-houses and brothels, and colorful, decorative patterned forms) Thomas proceeds entirely on the wings of inspiration, improvising his own visual "music of chance."

Such a procedure tests the virtuosity and imagination of the performer, and Thomas amply meets the challenge in these large and splendid charcoal drawings with acrylic washes. Sometimes he uses much -- or most -- of the original image, as in the joyful triptych based on a three-part woodblock print by Toyokuni titled "Superhuman and the Fairy"; on other occasions, he moves in on one detail, transforming a hand into a graceful French curve, or the patterned aspect of an elaborate costume into an almost total abstraction. The colors are glorious.

In each case, Thomas' drawings are shown next to the woodblock prints that inspired them, allowing the viewer to participate in the artist's stream of consciousness, measuring the nature of his visual cadenzas. It is amazing how true to the originals he has managed to be, though it takes a good deal of looking to see it. In fact, though some of the later works in this series become too fussy, the best of them provide seemingly inexhaustive visual adventures. The woodblocks can be purchased along with drawings they inspired. It is hard to imagine one without the other.

The show continues through Nov. 5 at 201 Prince St., and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 to 4, Sundays 1 to 4. Thomas will speak on his work Sunday afternoon at 4. Scenes of Old New York

If the art business is in a recession, you'd never know it at the Bethesda Art Gallery. Earlier this week, collectors lined up to see "Images of New York" two days before gallery proprietors Betty and Douglas Duffy had planned to open their new show.

It happens often at this little gold mine of a gallery specializing in early 20th-century American prints, a segment of the market that has suffered not a whit from prevailing hard times. "I'm sure it will hit us sooner or later," says Betty Duffy. But it's hard to believe: Within an hour of opening its doors, 30 of the 75 prints in this show were sold; by the end of the first day, 46 had found buyers. The price range: $75 to $3,000.

"Gosh, I thought I'd gotten here early," confided one dismayed collector who arrived after lunch, only to discover that his favorite images had been sold to earlier birds. "Oh dear," groaned Betty Duffy, who worries about disappointing any of her flock of print addicts.

It took the Duffys three years to assemble this show -- all etchings, woodcuts and lithographs featuring the New York subjects so popular with American artists of the 1920's and '30s, when the skyline was throbbing with new construction. Skyscrapers and bridges are here observed with awe in soaring images by Abraham Walkowitz, Howard Cook, John Marin and Louis Lozowick; teeming crowds of Chinatown and Coney Island in moody scenes by Glen O. Coleman, Isac Friedlander and many others.

There are works by well-known artists -- such as John Sloan, Childe Hassam and Martin Lewis (though not always in the best examples) -- and others of justifiably lesser renown. Of special interest are 25 etchings by a little-known, German-born artist named Charles F. W. Mielatz (1860-1919), a contemporary of Whistler, and the first American etcher to deal extensively with the turn-of-the-century New York scene.

Despite the Old World look and rather stiff rendering of several of the harbor scenes, Mielatz's smoky 1890's images of "The El" and "Grand Central Station at Night" are irresistible for their rain-soaked, steamy atmospherics, which recall the French Impressionists. Mielatz -- who made some 300 etchings, always in small editions of 20 or less -- has not been seen in such depth since his show at the St. Louis Art Museum in 1910.

"Images of New York" continues at 7950 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda through Thanksgiving. Hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5, Thursday evenings till 8. Views of Chincoteague

Randolph Payne, a former Abstract Expressionist-turned-realist, is having his first show in eight years at Gallery 4 in Alexandria, and it is impressive work. Consisting entirely of scenes of Chincoteague, all rendered in oil, this is no mere travelogue, for Payne has a special gift for catching the mood and light of this place.

This seems, in fact, a view of life in Chincoteague as it is seen in early spring by the year-round residents -- before the summer crowd arrives. Though there are no people in these crisp, clear images, you can almost hear screen doors slamming and children being called in for dinner behind the wind-whipped "Clothesline on Chicken City Road" and the new-blooming hydrangeas that surround an old frame house on Clark Street.

Payne's rendering of peeling paint in "Barber Shop" is especially impressive, and recalls the early work of Rebecca Davenport. The show closes today at 5 at 115 S. Columbus St. $130;Illustration 1, Detail from Thomas' "Companion to Ukiyo-e No. 30"; Illustration 2, Detail from Thomas' "Ukiyo-e No. 30"