"I love it," said Ursula Meese. "I had no idea of what to expect."

"How much did he pay for it?" asked her husband, Ed, the president's counselor.

"Three million, I think," said Ursula.

"Three point two five million," corrected a bystander.

"That's a lot of picture," said Ed.

Samuel F.B. Morse's "Gallery of the Louvre" had its coming-out party in Washington last night, hung high above the mavens who came to inspect. It sold this summer for what is thought to be the highest price ever paid for an American painting. Everybody peered at it intently, then wandered into the National Gallery's Garden Court to eat a few quail eggs. "I don't think I'm going to try one," said Maggie Stewart, who identified herself as the "dread mother-in-law" of Frank Hodsoll, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The party was given by the National Gallery for the painting's owner, Daniel Terra. He's loaning it for an exhibit, but he's also the U.S. ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs. As Ronald Reagan's national finance chairman, he raised $21 million for the presidential campaign. "To have someone with the government, who's a friend of the president, interested in cultural affairs, is a wonderful idea," beamed J. Carter Brown, the gallery's director. Terra himself has a new gallery in Evanston, Ill., and is building another in Chicago where the painting eventually will come home to roost. In the meantime, it'll be gathering prestige and panache as it travels to art museums across America.

Was it worth the $3.25 million? somebody asked Terra.

"It's a national treasure," he replied. "How can you judge the value in dollars of a national treasure?"

The party was a quiet one, attended by only a few of the administration people who'd been expected. "Now when we had the 'Mona Lisa' here," Brown recalled, "it was timed for the opening of Congress. The French insisted. JFK made the remarks. Vice President Johnson was here, and so was Andre Malraux, Charles de Gaulle's minister of culture. And it was a disaster. The loudspeaker broke down, and Jack Kennedy, even with his stentorian campaign voice, couldn't be heard over the chatter. I think The Washington Star called it 'a noble ruin.' It was so embarrassing.

"I wasn't in charge in those days."

National Security Adviser William Clark, who prides himself on his low Washington profile, wandered in around 8 p.m. He was promptly introduced as "Ambassador Middendorf" to Leonard Silverstein, the president of the National Symphony Orchestra's board of trustees. It was the faux pas of White House curator Clem Conger. "Oh, I mean Judge Clark!" he said, embarrassed.

On the subject of the MX missile, Clark remarked: "The president will certainly listen to other ideas. But there have been very few forthcoming." That was pretty much it.

Helene von Damm, the White House personnel director, was there, too. "I'm just trying to stay under cover," she said, meaning the appointments she's trying to get approved. "It's this lame-duck session. Sparks are flying. Everybody's on hold. They're either too conservative or too liberal."

Others at the party included: Wolf Trap founder Catherine Shouse; arts patron David Lloyd Kreeger; U.S. chief of protocol Selwa Roosevelt; the real William Middendorf, who is the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States; and Muffie Brandon, the White House social secretary.

"Hello, Muffie," said Ed Meese, walking out. "I've got to go cohost another reception."

"Well, you're more social than I am," said Brandon.

Unlike other art openings, where people can wander around for hours, this one featured only the single painting. Ten minutes was about as long as anyone could stare. Then they went into the eating area where they were faced with an array of Russian meatballs, egg rolls, salmon, pasta and pa te'. And the quail eggs. "If you don't have something to dip them in or jazz them up with, don't you think they're sort of bland?" asked Maggie Stewart, the dread mother-in-law.