By Washington standards, it was rather late for a twinkling reception. But at 9 last night, out came the silk and starch of art society into the world of Charles Willson Peale.

The National Portrait Gallery played host at a colorful renaissance revival to launch "Charles Willson Peale and His World," a collection of portraits by the 18th-century Maryland artist.

"His works are imaginative, inventive and American," said New Yorker Lawrence Fleischman, of the Kennedy Gallery, who underwrote the exhibition. "He was a friend of George Washington, you know."

Guests sauntered by the life-size oils of Washington, Philadelphia war heroes and rich Eastern Shore families. Washington at 40 was particularly popular. "Sexy," observed one woman.

Upstairs, the center of attention was something called syllabub, a fluffy 18th-century concoction of cream, milk, lime and cinnamon that was consumed by the gallon. This went along nicely with a rainbow of pastries and little butter cakes.

Earlier in the evening, an even more select group of art patrons was invited to a private dinner in honor of Edgar Richardson, former director of both Winterthur Museum and the Detroit Museum. Richardson, who wrote a series of essays on Peale's works that appears in an illustrated book, was honored for his 80th birthday.

"We served a meal that we knew Peale would have eaten," explained a spokeswoman for the gallery. Peale would have wanted to eat poached turkey breasts, wild rice, sweet potato corn muffins and apple brown betty.

The only member of Congress in sight was Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), who comes from Peale's home turf. Art aside for a moment, Mathias had this to say about the upcoming election: "I think the chances are well that we will retain the Senate. The climate around the country is a little better in many places than people think. The economy is a problem, but it should be put in context . . . Unemployment is a worldwide phenomenon . . ."

But Mathias clearly had other things on his mind.

"Peale was a Marylander and that's why I'm here," he said. "No one has even mentioned that tonight. Excuse me while I go wave a flag or two."