Some of the most famous art seen in American advertising for almost 50 years has been given to the National Museum of American Art, the museum announced yesterday.

The Container Corp. of America has donated 311 works of painting, sculpture, drawing and collage commissioned for several advertising campaigns, including the one for the well-known "Great Ideas" series that ran from 1950 to 1982.

The works will be exhibited from Oct. 18, 1985 through Jan. 12, 1986.

The collection, which museum director Charles Eldredge calls "an extraordinary lot," includes work by Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence (three pieces), Willem de Kooning, Fernand Le'ger, Rene' Magritte, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Larry Rivers, Leonard Baskin, James Rosenquist, Ben Shahn (four works) and Andy Warhol.

From the "Great Ideas" series, which appeared mainly in news and business magazines, there are such diverse objects as sculptor Hunt's chrome "illustration" of a line from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Blithedale Romance" and Rosenquist's oil-on-canvas rendition of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis commenting on democracy.

Aside from the quality of the individual pieces, the collection provides a record of "an important chapter in American taste and patronage," says Eldredge. "It has perhaps grown more common in recent years, but when Continental Can embarked on its project more than 40 years ago, it was a decidedly novel venture."

From the beginning, the venture represented a departure from typical American advertising, according to Martina Norelli, associate curator of graphic arts at the museum.

"You think back to the advertising of the '30s and there would be paragraphs describing the product," says Norelli, curator of the exhibition. "Container was trying to project -- by using fine design and art work -- the quality of the product . . . They were one of the very first companies to recognize that fine art could be used to underscore the quality of the company. In a lot of ways they were selling the company. Not, 'Buy our cardboard boxes,' but, 'We're a quality company.' "

The corporation -- one of the country's largest producers of paperboard and paperboard packaging -- was founded by the late Walter Paepcke, arts supporter and founder of the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, where business executives, labor leaders, politicians and scientists gather to exchange ideas. His establishment of the institute in 1950 sparked the now-famous Colorado ski resort's development.

"It was really just a mining town," says Amy Bacon, associate manager of corporate communications for Container Corp. "He really made that town."

Paepcke was also known as a cultural influence in the business world. His wife, Elizabeth, who still lives in Chicago, is an art connoisseur. His friends included Bauhaus artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, and in 1935 he hired Egbert Jacobsen -- art director, designer and president of the Art Director's Club of Chicago -- to head design for the company.

In search of a new kind of advertising, Paepcke hired French poster artist A.M. Cassandre in 1937, who designed black-and-white drawings that emphasized concentration, unity and beauty.

In 1950, the "Great Ideas" series allowed selected artists to illustrate thoughts from important literary works. Both Paepckes were members of the Great Books Foundation, started by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago. According to Norelli, the "Great Ideas" campaign had some of its roots in the Paepckes' association with Adler.

Norelli says Paepcke was looking for "something that would continue this marriage of thought and image and also continue to use fine art and continue to underscore the quality of the company and its product."

"One of the quotes attributed to him," says Bacon, "was something along the lines of, 'A box company is a box company,' and he wanted to differentiate our company. He wanted to show that there really is a lot of creativity in producing packaging."

Bacon says Container Corp. has always been committed to design: "our brochures . . . our architecture. When you walk into a Container office building, you know it's a Container office building," she says.

The "Great Ideas" series ended in 1982, and the company has since changed its approach to advertising. "We still have a real commitment to art and design," she says, "but our advertising strategy is to be more product-oriented. And we're in a very competitive business. We've decided not to put our money into that kind of advertising anymore."