THEY SHOULD post signs at the National Gallery of Art to warn off patrons whose heart conditions include hopeless infatuation with Titian and Anthony Van Dyck. If it's possible to have too much of a great thing, the gallery's got it.

The scores of Titians that went on display last week will be joined Sunday by a hundred Van Dycks. There has never been such a pair of shows anywhere in the world; we may as well give ourselves over to sin, because after this, Heaven is bound to be a disappointment.

Apart from its sheer humongous overwhelminosity, this pairing proves Titian (1490-1576) and Van Dyck (1599-1641) to have been cosmic twins, no doubt brought into the world separately so as not to set the planet afire.

Although Van Dyck died at only 42, he had been producing masterpieces for 28 years, his genius having revealed itself by age 14. In that year the beardless youth produced, in "An Elderly Man" (1613) a portrait not only wiser than his years but wiser than the old man's years.

At age 18 Van Dyck was admitted as a master of the artists guild of his native Antwerp, signifying that he no longer was simply a student of Rubens, in whose studio he spent some years. In case anybody had missed the point, Van Dyck as a teenager produced "Emperor Theodosius Refused Entry to Milan Cathedral" (1619), which clearly overshadows Rubens's earlier treatment of the same scene.

By age 20 Van Dyck was being courted by the courts of Europe, and was embarked on a career of portraiture that was if anything too successful: Like Titian, he was kept so busy painting the crowned heads and nobility that there was little time for the religious and classical themes he loved.

Van Dyck didn't defy the portrait conventions of his time, he ignored or surpassed them, including many that Titian had invented. He was Titian's equal as an innovator of the revealing pose and as an illuminator of character, and surpassed him as an anatomist; the heads of Van Dyck's subjects are all of appropriate size and are attached in the proper places.

In fact, passing back and forth between the two exhibitions may stimulate the heretical, even sacrilegious, thought that Van Dyck could have taught Titian a thing or two: Van Dyck's paintings have all the warmth, richness and texture of the older master's, and beyond that seem lighted from within.

In the exhibition catalogue curators Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Susan J. Barnes have included graceful accounts of the surprisingly little that's known of Van Dyck's life, hard-nosed examination of previous Van Dyck scholarship and penetrating commentaries on each painting.


Sunday through Feb. 24 in the West Building, National Gallery of Art. Open 10 to 5:30 Monday through Saturday and 11 to 6:30 Sundays. Metro: Archives.