Today's political celebrities, beset by picture-snappers, have much in common with Martha and George Washington.

The first president and his wife also were pursued, but by unmechanized portrait painters with brushes, oils, canvas and high hopes for fame and fortune. A National Portrait Gallery exhibit, "George and Martha Washington: Portraits From the Presidential Years," conjures these voices from the past.

In the fascinating and often amusing exhibition catalogue, curator Ellen Miles explains a belief still sometimes held today:

"In the late 18th century, portraits played a significant role in recalling a person's character as well as appearance, because it was believed that a person's face revealed his or her mental and emotional characteristics . . .

"Seeing the Washingtons through the eyes of the painters and one sculptor who recorded them at life sittings, we can gain a glimpse of the Washingtons as individuals rather than historical icons."

Martha Washington, often overlooked, is well represented in the exhibit, especially in miniatures. Walter Robertson, who painted both Washingtons in watercolors on ivory miniatures, wrote that he was uneasy at first, but Mrs. Washington's "easy, polished and familiar gayety, and ceaseless cheerfulness, almost accomplished a cure."

A thoughtful 1789 watercolor-on-ivory portrait of Washington by Irishman John Ramage was painted for Martha Washington. "The miniature's case encloses a lock of his hair and is decorated with his initials," Miles writes. The hair is auburn. Other paintings show Washington with powdered hair--sometimes with powder sprinkled on his shoulders.

The pleasant pastel on paper of the first first lady, made circa 1796 by James Sharples, is one of a pair with her husband. Sharples, Miles writes, "drew the outlines of the portraits with a mechanical instrument, which ensured physiognomic accuracy."

Mrs. Washington's granddaughter Eliza Parke Custis, in a note framed with the general's portrait, wrote that his is "an exact likeness" except his complexion "was very fair with light brown almost auburn hair--he had not a black beard. He had artificial teeth but so well fixed, that they did not disfigure his mouth--his hair was thin, craped & dress with powder & pomatum."

Each of the artists saw the Washingtons through different eyes.

A hideous 1789 painting by Christian Gullager depicts Washington as a loose-cheeked, small-eyed, tight-lipped malevolent man.

The painting may have been the artist's revenge, Miles told the Chronicler as we walked around the exhibition's 25 or so portraits and the Giuseppe Ceracchi marble sculpture. Washington, already bedeviled by lines of better-regarded New York portraitists, wouldn't sit for Gullager when asked.

Gullager, a Danish artist living in Massachusetts, heard in the fall of 1789 that the Faneuil Hall selectmen's "ladies" in Boston wanted a portrait of Washington so their children would know what the great man looked like. When Washington turned Gullager down, according to Salem clergyman Jeremy Belknap, the painter "stole a likeness of him from a pew behind the pulpit."

Washington, doubtless tired of the badgering, tried to get rid of Gullager by sitting 2 1/2 hours for his portrait. Gullager's son in 1832 claimed his father turned down a $500 offer for it by the Bostonians. He added that Belknap "acquired the portrait after a raffle."

Other, better artists were more sensitive to the honor.

In 1795, Charles Willson Peale--who had fought in the Revolutionary War with Washington--and his son Rembrandt simultaneously painted Washington at three sittings. Miles quotes Rembrandt Peale as recording that "I was so agitated that I could scarcely mix my colours, and was conscious that my anxiety would overpower me, and that I should fail in my purpose, unless my father would agree to take a canvas alongside of me and thus give me an assurance that the sittings would not be unprofitable, by affording a double chance for a likeness. This had the effect of calming my nerves & I enjoyed the rare advantage of studying the desired countenance whilst in familiar conversation with my father."

The exhibit is open through Aug. 8. The essential catalogue, with a biographical essay by New Haven, Conn., scholar Edmund Morgan, published by University Press of Virginia, is available at the Portrait Gallery shop. For days and times, call 202-357-3030.

CAPTION: The National Portrait Gallery exhibit "George and Martha Washington: Portraits From the Presidential Year" includes these Charles Willson Peale paintings of the couple made in 1795.