Get your tickets early. "Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R." is a sweetheart of a show. It calls up old affections, it revives old adorations. Viewers who can't get enough of Gauguin in Tahiti, the grand machines of Matisse and the inventions of Picasso, will surely be reminded of those days when they first fell in love.

The taste that rules the Russian show might be American. Encountering its masterworks from the Hermitage in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, is like discovering some long-lost twin of the modern art museum most of us loved first, the Museum of Modern Art.

Instead of MoMA's prime Picasso, "Demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907, the Russian exhibition -- which goes on view this morning at the National Gallery of Art -- has a cousin of that masterpiece, "Three Women" painted the next year. MoMA has the great "Red Studio" by Matisse. The Russian show, instead, has his "Harmony in Red" and his strange, blue "Conversation," a picture even more amazing. It's a set of one-man shows. Its 41 paintings include eight Ce'zannes, nine Gauguins, three pictures each by Monet, Renoir and van Gogh, seven Matisses and eight Picassos. Visitors will come in droves. All the masters in the Russian show are our beloved friends.

The French art scene that nourished them drew all sorts of fearless foreigners -- Edvard Munch from Norway, Brancusi from Romania, Picasso from Spain. Paris also lured adventurous collectors. Some of the most daring came from far away, from uncouth and untamed lands. Mary Cassatt from Pennsylvania, the Cone sisters from Maryland, and Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein from Oakland, Calif., accepted, as few Frenchmen did, the most advanced French art.

Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) and Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) were their equivalents from Russia. Or even their superiors. When the Havemeyers, those close friends of Cassatt, inexplicably lost faith in their superb Ce'zanne self-portrait here ("Self-Portrait With Cap," c. 1873) it was snapped up by I. Morozov. When they sold their Ce'zanne "Still Life Milk Can, Carafe, and Coffee Bowl," it was purchased by S. Shchukin, who also bought Picasso's "Three Women," which had been owned by Gertrude Stein.

Both Russians dealt in textiles (Shchukin owned a factory), and their businesses permitted them frequent trips to Moscow. They had large amounts of confidence, and large amounts of money. It is to those two capitalists from Moscow that we owe these paintings. For reasons of security the works are displayed behind Plexiglas, which diminishes their beauty, but this is still a knockout of a show.

It only surveys their collections. Morozov owned 6 Renoirs, 5 Sisleys, 11 Gauguins, 5 van Goghs, 13 Bonnards, 10 Matisses and 18 Ce'zannes. Shchukin bought 7 Rousseaus, 8 Ce'zannes, 13 Monets, 14 Gauguins, 16 Derains, 37 Matisses and 51 Picassos.

Both men sought the new. Yet the viewer cannot help but sense in their Francophilia, as in that of the Americans, some echo of the past. Intellectual Americans had been buying art in Paris since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Peter the Great preceded him. (French was the first language in the czarist court, and Count Leo Tolstoy, though no Royalist, wrote much of "War and Peace" in that "foreign" tongue.) Morozov and Shchukin must have known that they were living at the dawn of a new age. One senses from their pictures that they yearned for its arrival, though when at last it came it cost both men their fortunes, and their art collections too.

The Shchukin and Morozov collections were nationalized -- under a decree promulgated by the Council of People's Commissars -- in 1918, shortly after the October Revolution. The Shchukin collection was renamed "The First Museum of Modern European Painting," the Morozov became the Second. By the end of 1919, the French paintings they had purchased were all on public view.

Many of the paintings here have been seen in Western Europe. An exhibit much like this one -- it did not include, however, "Harmony in Red" -- opened at Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza's villa in Switzerland in 1983. They might have come to Washington had not various conflicts dealt such heavy body blows to Soviet-American relations. An exchange agreement permitting their current tour was approved by the two nations last November in Geneva.

Armand Hammer, as he has often done before in moments of de'tente, stepped in to pay the bills. "Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R.: Works from the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow" will visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Manhattan's Metropolitan after leaving Washington on June 15. The tour, the quickly published catalogue (the catalogue is nothing to write home about) and many curatorial trips will cost Hammer's Occidental Petroleum Corp. $1.25 million.

The Russian show begins where "The New Painting," the gallery's recent Impressionist exhibition, left off. Its first room is devoted to paintings by Ce'zanne. Then come the Monets and Renoirs. The third room is shared, as no doubt it should be, by those sometime friends Gauguin and van Gogh. Then comes astonishing Matisse -- his "Conversation" seems to me the high point of the show -- and, finally, Picasso.

The gallery's Charles Stuckey rightly calls the Russian exhibition "a sampler of masterworks, a condensed history of modern painting, and a show about collectors." It provides something else as well, a sort of never-never wish list. Those who like to play the which-picture-should-I-take-home game will find this show a trial. Except for one bad painting, "Lady in Black," an oddly flabby Renoir, nothing here is second rank. Still, if one had to chose . . .

These paintings sang to me:

Paul Ce'zanne's "Self Portrait With Cap," c. 1873, from Morozov's collection. The master, known for the steely structures of his pictures, here instead displays an astonishing bravura. His left ear is two daubs of paint, his mouth, lost in his heavy beard, an offhand flick of red. This brooding work is brought to life by the patch of white that highlights his dark cap.

Ce'zanne's "Large Pine Tree Near Aix," c. 1895-97, another Morozov picture. The movement of the brush brings this work alive. The foliage in the foreground is done in vertical brushstrokes; they stand like blades of grass. Those of the ochre field glimpsed behind the tree lay flat, as does the earth itself. Those of the tree's needles describe complex S-shaped rhythms, as if the winds of southern France were shivering the pines.

Ce'zanne's "Women in Blue," c. 1900, from the Shchukin collection. This, the first of the great portraits encountered in the show, is a medley of diamond shapes. The diamond of her flowered hat is echoed by her shoulders, her lapels, her left arm on the table and the pattern of the tablecloth. It is countered by the roundness of her hips and breasts. And yet all of that geometry is somehow overruled by the sadness of her eyes and the poignance of her face.

Claude Monet's "Woman in a Garden," c. 1867, which was bought in 1899 by Sergei Shchukin's brother, Pyotr (Sergei got the picture in 1912). A woman bright as sunlight, her parasol white, her long clean dress white as well, walks through the garden at Sainte-Adresse. She illuminates the landscape as if she were the sun itself. Hold up your hand and block her out, and the whole sunny scene goes flat.

Monet's "Pond at Montgeron," c. 1876, from Morozov's collection. A woman with a fishing pole, a man reclines beside her, a couple whispers in the middleground; beyond them, in the background, two houses -- like a pair of eyes -- watch the quiet scene from a sunny hill. The work seems freely painted, but its structure is severe. And its spirit is prophetic. The trees reflected in the pond, and the ripples on the water, predict the nearly abstract waterlily pictures that Monet (1840-1926) would paint with such devotion in the last years of his life.

Paul Gauguin's "Are You Jealous? (Aha oe feii?)," 1892, from Shchukin's collection. That orange dog, that crimson sea -- the Gauguins in the show are among its glories, but none surpasses "Are You Jealous?" Gauguin described it in his book "Noa Noa": "On the shore, two sisters are lying after bathing, in the graceful poses of resting animals; they speak of yesterday's love and tomorrow's victories. The recollection causes them to quarrel: 'What, Are You Jealous.' " Is the sister in the foreground eyeing the observer? The sand is pink. The water at the upper left is blue and black and orange-red, and the passage that depicts it is utterly abstract.

Henri Matisse's "Conversation," 1909, which Shchukin bought in 1912. A field of startling blue -- blue, the Virgin's color. J. Carter Brown, the gallery's director, suggests the picture's composition is that of the Annunciation. The painter plays the angel's role. He stands at left, like some fluted temple column. He is wearing striped pajamas. His wife, in black, is seated in a blue chair at the right. If Ce'zanne's "Woman in Blue" is a symphony in diamonds, this Matisse, instead, is a symphony in ovals. This picture leaps past cubism. It seems new as a Frank Stella.

Matisse's "Harmony in Red," 1908, another Shchukin picture. This incredible picture will only be seen in Washington. Amazingly, this painting, once known as "The Red Room," was once not red at all. At first it was blue-green (its original color can still be seen all around the framing edge; the picture, it is clear, was repainted in a hurry). It was blue-green when Shchukin bought it. Matisse then made "adjustments." One can only guess at the thoughts in Shchukin's mind when he first unpacked his painting and saw, unrolling there before him, that field of vermilion-crimson red.

Picasso's "Portrait of Ambroise Vollard," 1909-1910, from Morozov's collection. Instead of diamonds, instead of ovals, this painting is made of countless cubist shatterings. They feel like panes of grayish glass. And yet despite their breakages, the likeness of Vollard, the master's dealer, is unmistakable. His eyes are closed, his face is calm. He wears a handkerchief in his pocket.

In exchange for this memorable exhibit, a selection of paintings from the National Gallery is touring the Soviet Union. In Ronald Reagan's Washington it is almost de rigueur to speak harshly of the Russians. If the present exhibition, even to some slight degree, diminishes suspicions, that's just fine with me.