A major American genre painting for which artist William Sidney Mount was paid $200 in 1847 has been offered to an eager National Gallery of Art for around $5 million. It has hung on the walls of Manhattan's prestigious Century Association since 1880.

The controversial decision to sell "The Power of Music," which portrays a black man listening to a fiddler, was voted on two weeks ago at a meeting of the membership. The decision follows a campaign that failed to raise several millions needed for restoration of the club's Stanford White-designed town house at 7 W. 43rd St.

The 143-year-old association, better known as the Century Club, was formed for "gentlemen" (and as of two years ago, gentlewomen) "engaged or interested in letters and the fine arts." Present members include David Rockefeller, John Chancellor, Robert Motherwell, Ken Noland, Yo-Yo Ma, Beverly Sills and Jacqueline Onassis.

Last night, the Century's executive committee met to set the asking price. The club had debated the sale for three years, balancing fiscal need against what many members saw as destruction of a unique collection. The plan to sell the picture privately has been rationalized on grounds that it would offer wider public access to a painting some feel has acquired iconic status.

If the sale does take place, it will be within a closed circle of Centurions. Both J. Carter Brown and Roger Mandle, National Gallery director and deputy director, respectively, are members of the club. So is Washington art dealer Ted Cooper, who has written extensively on the painting and structured the proposed sale, without commission.

Nicolai Cikovsky, National Gallery curator of American art, said any comment on the deal would be "premature," but made clear the gallery's interest. He said the price would be key. The National owns no works by Mount, and the Century's painting is considered the best of the artist's rural genre scenes still in private hands.

All National Gallery purchases are made with funds raised privately. No public money is available for acquisitions.

"There were earlier major paintings, but not a single painter who explored the subject of blacks in everyday American life in such an intensive way," says former Corcoran associate director Jane Livingston, who co-organized "Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940." The painting was unsuccessfully requested for the Corcoran show.

Mount (1807-1868), considered by some critics a greater storyteller than artist, was one of the most popular painters of 19th-century American rural life. This 27-by-21-inch oil, painted on commission for a Mrs. Gideon Lee, was a success from the start. Mount wrote of it in his diary: "When Charles M. Leupp {Mrs. Lee's son-in-law}, received the painting, he ... said, 'I only wish the picture belonged to me.' When I mentioned to him the price, he said it was not enough, and generously gave me $25 more than my charge." Leupp eventually inherited the painting and in 1880 sold it to Century, of which he was a founding member, for $500.

The painting is but one of dozens of paintings by 19th-century Americans on the club's walls -- some acquired by purchase, others in lieu of entrance fees -- by Kensett, Durand, Bierstadt, Sargent, Homer, Gifford, Whittredge and many more. The collection is considered one of the best of its sort in New York outside of a museum.

The Century last made news in the late '80s, when it fought a losing battle against admitting women. The first proposal to sell the Mount was advanced at that time in hopes of raising enough cash to fend off the female onslaught. There was angry opposition from the start: "The sense of outrage ... is so strong that it is safe to predict that the sale of house art would represent a far more injurious change to the Century ethos, and would be more divisive, than would the admission of women," Raymond J. Horwitz, chairman of the club's committee on house art, wrote in an internal memo in September 1987.

Asked whether it was tough economic reality or softer attitudes toward deacessioning that had changed members' minds, Horwitz cited a club rule that forbids Centurions to talk to the press.

Meanwhile, the painting has been removed from the club and locked in a vault at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it will remain until the sale is concluded.