"Master Prints From Washington Private Collections," an aptly titled exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, will delight and surprise even viewers already well aware of the city's deserved reputation as an excellent center for the display, study and collection of the graphic arts.

The exhibition, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Washington Print Club, comprises a pleasantly haphazard survey of printmaking in the western world from the 15th century to the present. But the special impact of the show derives not so much from the range of the material, though this is impressive, as from the extraordinary quality of the individual prints. The fact that the 90 objects in the show come from 54 different collectors, including 41 members of the print club, is justifiable cause for local pride.

Andrew Robison, curator of prints and drawings at the gallery, points out that though it was not his intention when he began selecting the exhibit, "in the end it turns out to show that Washington is a much better art city than many have thought." He added that, after talking with his colleagues around the country, he now is "pretty sure" that a show of comparable quality could be mounted from private holdings in only one other American city. (Readers get just one guess as to which particular Big Apple that might be.)

Among the "special joys" of print collecting that Robison lists in his catalogue essay is "the distinctive pleasure of a marvelous work in a particularly fine impression, which by contrast with others conveys the artist's quality so directly to the sensitive beholder." This is the principal test of connoisseurship he used in choosing which prints to put in the show, with such outstanding results.

There are, for instance, four Rembrandt etchings in the show, each superb in a different way, from the shadowy richness of a landscape, "The Three Trees," to the delicacy and pyschological subtlety of his portait of Clement de Jonghe. Whistler was writing of a different Rembrandt portrait, but it may as well have been this one, when he was moved to exclaim, "Without flaw! Beautiful as a Greek marble or a canvas by Tintoret sic -- a 'Masterpiece' in all its elements beyond which there is nothing."

If Rembrandt is not the greatest printmaker in the western tradition, Albrecht Du rer is, and there are five great Du rer prints in the show, demonstrating his amazing range and skill in woodcut and engraving. Other great old masters are magnificently represented, too: Lucas van Leyden, with a wonderfully crisp impression of his "Saint George Liberating the Princess"; Agostino Carracci, with his stupendously muscular and moving "Saint Jerome"; and Jacques Callot, with his etched representation of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," an unbelievably busy image that is, all the same, clear in every detail, as well as his more typical, and even more chilling, etching of "The Hanging," with those tiny bodies dangling like overripe fruit from the limbs of a tree.

But Robison was careful to insert a few surprises in this parade of the greats. My favorites in this regard are Adriaen van Ostade's etching "The Painter in his Studio," a beautiful study of subtle shifts in light and a penetrating glimpse of artistic activity in 17th-century Holland; and "Summer," an allegorical etching made in 1641 by Czechoslovakian artist Wenceslaus Hollar, in which the female figure is so utterly ambiguous that one wonders about the title of the print, and also its age. She could have been created by Max Ernst in our own century.

There are many excellent 19th- and early 20th-century prints in the exhibition, too, though quality tends to fall off as we approach the present: James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg, to name two, just don't seem to hold up in such august company. Almost invariably the best things in the 20th-century room were made earlier in the century and came from overseas: A fantastically expressive color lithograph of "Three Bathers on the Rocks," made in 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, for example, or a scintillating 1941 abstract etching by Andre' Masson that is one of the very best images I have ever seen by this French artist.

Scattered through the exhibition are prints that Robison considers to be especially significant because of their rarity or quality or both. One such print is Picasso's familiar "The Frugal Repast" from 1904, which Robison unequivocally states is "the finest impression in the world." He should know because when this print came on the market in the late 1970s, he personally carried it to the Art Institute of Chicago to compare it with the impression that, by consensus, was thought to be the best. With this imprimatur Robison easily persuaded a friend to buy the print and, more exceptionally, to promise it as a future gift to the National Gallery of Art.

This story illustrates one of the important ways that Robison, in his 11-year tenure as the gallery's graphics curator, has forged alliances with the local art scene. "I think one of my main jobs as a curator," he explains, "is to encourage private collectors. I'm a collector myself and I like collectors, and I also owe it to the National Gallery to cultivate potential donors." This exhibition is in many ways a testament to the wisdom of this policy.

The Washington Print Club certainly deserves the tribute. Now 350 members strong, it has come a long way from the meeting of the founding group (Tim Bornstein, Herb Franklin, John Mathews, Jo Ann Lewis, Gerry Nordland, Alan Fern and Mary Hewes) at long-gone Pierre's Restaurant on Dec. 2, 1964. Among its significant accomplishments, besides generally encouraging knowledgeable interest in prints, are the publication of a fine quarterly newsletter and the creation of the Discover Graphics program, an exemplary educational effort for high school students now administered by the Smithsonian Resident Associates.

The exhibition, installed in the West Building graphics galleries, continues through March 3.