NEW YORK -- It wasn't the first time a Washington painter had made a New York gallery debut: These days, it happens all the time. But when Mark Leithauser's show opened yesterday at Manhattan's Coe Kerr Gallery it was, by any measure, an extraordinary event.

For one thing, Leithauser had never exhibited paintings before -- anywhere. Yet all but one of them had sold before the opening (top price: $12,000), even though Leithauser took up the medium only 3 1/2 years ago and taught himself to paint, working nights and weekends.

For another, Coe Kerr, which also handles Andrew Wyeth, has published a lavish 50-page color catalogue that boasts a foreword by no less a luminary than John Wilmerding, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, and an essay by National Gallery print curator Ruth Fine. Together, they set Leithauser's draftsmanship within a historical context that includes Du rer, Rembrandt and Wyeth, and his paintings in the tradition of 19th-century American trompe l'oeil painting of William M. Harnett and John F. Peto.

And for another, all the National Gallery brass, from J. Carter Brown on down, turned up at the preview.

"It's a National Gallery love-in," said Washington-New York-Paris art dealer Harry Lunn, observing the gathering, "and the most extraordinary establishment launch in memory for a 'Washington artist' in New York."

Not bad for starters, and definitely not New York's customary welcome for untried, out-of-town talent.

But then Leithauser, 38, is no ordinary talent, and though his paintings are unknown, his work has been seen by millions of visitors to the National Gallery, where he is deputy chief of the design and installation department, preeminent in the world for installations of exhibitions such as the 1986 blockbuster "Treasure Houses of Britain."

He is also well known as a virtuoso printmaker, whose dense, meticulous etchings of gnarled trees and wooded landscapes have been seen in several group and solo shows, most recently at Washington's Hom Gallery.

Jem Hom, who has mounted a concurrent show of Leithauser etchings and drawings, admits disappointment that collectors here didn't get first crack at Leithauser's paintings, and Leithauser himself says he did a good deal of soul-searching about that.

"I felt like I was deserting Washington, which has been very good to me," he said. "But everyone said I'd be crazy not to take this opportunity -- even Jem, who really does specialize in graphic arts."

No doubt about it: This was the week Mark Leithauser moved into the big time.

The Artist at Home Everything was fairly normal at Leithauser's Northwest Washington home last week as the countdown to the New York opening began. With his wife Bryan out on an errand, Leithauser was trying to fry up something for dinner while two dogs tugged at his trousers and a New York reporter phoned for an interview. Hamilton, 9, and Anna, 7, were playing on the floor nearby. Anna was already a celebrity, having landed on the front pages of several newspapers after presenting Raisa Gorbachev with a bouquet during her recent visit to the National Gallery.

Bryan had been complaining that the walls were bare with all the paintings already transported to New York -- never again to return, and probably not likely to be seen together until Leithauser's first retrospective (which he dreams of having at the Phillips), if then. But the house is so full of things to look at -- old wooden toys, antique American furniture, plants and giant shells, souvenirs from antique shops around the world -- and prints by other meticulous realists from Piranesi, Callot and John Taylor Arms to Peter Milton -- that no one else would have known something was missing.

One Leithauser canvas remained: the first one he made -- a still life of narcissus bulbs -- which hangs in its old Dutch tortoise-shell frame in the dining room. "I didn't think it was finished," said Leithauser, without suggesting any sentimental attachment. There are, however, Leithauser paintings all over the house: garlands and festoons of plants literally painted on the door frames, vegetables and herbs on the kitchen cabinets, and a magnificent fool-the-eye basket of geraniums painted on the breakfast nook wall.

In the basement is the tiny 12-by-14-foot studio where Leithauser, after hours and on weekends, has produced not only the 14 paintings and 13 silverpoint drawings in his New York show, but also 17 etchings, each printed in editions of 75 or 90 on the old Norwegian press that stands in the center of the room. A painting of fireworks -- a favorite theme -- was underway on a desk-top easel in the corner.

The City of Art One of the most popular of Leithauser's early prints -- "Migration," made in 1976 -- sold originally at about $100 and is now $1,500, when you can get one. The most recent prints, made before he started painting, sell for between $400 and $600, except one very small firecracker, which is $200.

"He had a very steady following, and since he came with us, we've developed others," says Hom. "Of course it's disappointing that he didn't do any new prints over the last three years, but an artist has to do what he has to do.

"It would be cohesive to show his paintings to the people who've been collecting his graphic work over the past few years. It's customary," says Hom.

Turning disappointment to advantage, Hom has mounted a Leithauser show of his own, including five of the most recent etchings, along with four beautiful new drawings and various state proofs and preparatory drawings. According to Hom, energy generated here by news of the New York show has already accelerated sales.

"It wasn't fun having to tell Jem. I hated to do that," Leithauser says. "He's a man of real integrity, and I really like him ... There's nobody here I'd rather have selling my prints and drawings."

But Leithauser wanted New York.

"It is the art city, flat out, no question," Leithauser says. "Washington is a nice big city and has treated me well, but you just start walking down Madison Avenue, or in SoHo, and it's gallery, gallery, gallery, and art supply stores that would make you faint.

"There's just nothing like it. Period."

The Painting Campaign Like everything else he does, Leithauser's assault on the art world beyond Washington was carefully thought out, with help from devoted friends and colleagues at the National Gallery, notably Gaillard Ravenel, his close friend, boss of 14 years and midwife to this show.

Oddly, though Leithauser had two graduate degrees in art from Wayne State in his home town of Detroit, he had never taken an oil painting course or worked in the medium until his wife tried to encourage him by providing some framed, stretched canvases, and Ravenel presented him with a portable easel and some paint.

Leithauser first set out to determine which technique made the most sense: "I didn't have time to fool around and learn this and that: When I started, I wanted to paint," he says. He consulted various artists and conservators at the National Gallery, finally hitting upon what turned out to be the perfect solution in an article about photo-realist Richard Estes, who works out his paintings on the canvas in quick-drying acrylic and then finishes them in slow-drying oil, capturing the luminosity and depth that only oils can provide.

The painting progressed, but Leithauser didn't sell any of the work.

"He could have sold them one by one in Washington," Ravenel says. "People would come into the house to see them and wanted to take them away. But now there'd be nothing to offer. He saved them till he felt he had a body of work that he felt represented him."

"You have to show everything together at some point, so people will know who you are and what you're about," Leithauser says.

"When we began thinking about galleries, we all immediately realized you've got these small, realistic paintings, so you obviously don't take them down to these 16-foot white walls in SoHo. You want almost domestic scale, so we narrowed it down to a few galleries, and Coe Kerr was one."

It was at that point that connections helped. Leithauser was walking down Madison Avenue with National Gallery exhibitions chief Dodge Thompson when they ran into Jerald Fessenden of Coe Kerr. Thompson mentioned the paintings.

"They sent me a nice letter saying 'send slides,' and I said, 'Thanks, I don't do that, but if you come to Washington, come by.' "

They did. "They were great: I liked them right off the bat, and felt real good about the whole thing."

Sale of the paintings was also intelligently managed, though that was the New York dealer's doing. Though someone reportedly wanted to buy out the whole show, Coe Kerr felt that nobody should buy more than two at the most.

"You can sell all your stuff and it can disappear into one person's house. That careful thinking of your career is important -- I thought that was an interesting thing. And hadn't really thought about it."

Among those who finally did get to buy were collectors Linda and George Kaufman; poets Anthony Hecht and Linda Pastan; Ruth Carter Stevenson, who heads the National Gallery's Collectors Committee and is married to the chairman of its board; and Ravenel.

The Show Looking around at the New York show -- which includes landscape and still-life etchings as well as the exquisite silverpoint drawings and paintings -- one begins to see bits and pieces from Leithauser's home, as well as evidence of his extensive travels on behalf of the National Gallery. There are plants, bulbs, baskets, tools, brushes, toy tanks, paper dolls and firecrackers -- all transformed into mysterious, ambiguous images fashioned from observation, reverie and pure invention.

In "Natural Current" -- the masterpiece of this show -- flowers in a pot seem bowled over by unseen forces that give the work the look of an underwater still life, an impression reinforced by the small crayfish that floats above it. The crayfish motif, in fact, was borrowed from a 19th-century kimono that Leithauser drew while visiting a museum in Kyoto. A wonderful trompe l'oeil painting called "Studio Rack" is filled with Leithauser's beloved etching tools and feathering brushes, with one fool-the-eye brush perched on the ledge of the antique frame.

A close look at a more surrealistic still life, "Electric Viaduct," reveals how real objects have been altered by the meanderings of his imagination. The strange, bridgelike planter and oxalis plant actually stand on a shelf near the Leithausers' front door; it's the bridge, or "viaduct," part of an electric train set that once belonged to Bryan Leithauser's father.

"I looked at it as I was locking up one night," says Leithauser, "and I just loved the shape of it, and decided I should draw it."

But somehow, after Leithauser locked up that night, a blue dragon that decorated a Chinese red vase in a lithograph hanging nearby seems to have come to life and crawled into the cagelike bridge, to which it now clings. The tendrils of the oxalis seem to have been transformed into lightning. From an old toy and a plant, Leithauser created an image crackling with life.

The Opening The Coe Kerr opening reception crackled as well. At least a dozen staff members from the National Gallery mixed with their colleagues in New York, including scholar Kirk Varnedoe, adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and critic Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, who owns a Leithauser print that he purchased at Hom Gallery. "Good show," he whispered to another critic on the way out the door.

A small cheer went up when a red dot was placed on "Electric Viaduct," the one painting that hadn't been sold before the opening. It was bought by a New York frame company for $12,000. There was already talk about how much the paintings (which started at $4,500) and silverpoints (which ranged from $1,600 to $2,000) might bring in a secondary market.

Everyone got a copy of the catalogue and marveled at its quality. "It could have been produced for a show at the National Gallery of Art," Wilmerding said.

The Leithauser clan was there in force, including mother Gladys; brother Lance, a Washington plastic surgeon; and brother Brad, a poet, novelist and recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant. Neil, a Detroit attorney, was the only Leithauser brother who didn't make it.

"I was just lucky. They're all lovely men," said Gladys Leithauser, an English lecturer at the University of Michigan, when asked about her extraordinarily accomplished brood.

"Mother is a literary soul, and my father was a lawyer," explained Brad. "I just did what my mother and father did; but Mark seems to have made himself. He's always been a mystery to me."

"I wish I knew how my parents did it," said Lance. "I've got five kids of my own. They didn't push, I know that."

The evening ended in a warm glow at an after-opening buffet at the Andrew Wyeth-bedecked apartment of National Gallery trustee Alexander Mellon Laughlin, also a backer of Coe Kerr. Gladys Leithauser was saying her thank-yous when asked whether Mark had shown unusual talent as a child.

"Well, he collected things," she said. "All kinds of things, including antiques, in a little place he built in the basement, which he called a 'fort.' I thought that was a bit unusual for a 6-year-old."