THE LATE John Hay Whitney (1906-1982) sure knew how to live. T The remarkable French pictures that graced his graceful life share a sun-bright beauty that would melt the hardest heart. Whitney's small Matisse--"Open Window, Collioure" (1905)--his Seurats and Ce'zannes, van Goghs and Picassos, are among the finest pictures those painters ever painted. They are now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

They are opulent, colorful, important. But they do not overwhelm. The masterworks Whitney purchased--that word is overused, but it fits his finest paintings--are scaled to the bedroom wall, the mantel in the drawing room, the mansion house, the home. Whitney sought the charming. If one were very good--and died, and went to heaven--pictures of this sort could decorate one's cloud.

Jock Whitney bought the very best, and bought for the best reasons. Not for speculation--he did not need more money. Nor for self-promotion--his reputation was secure. Sportsman, soldier, diplomat, movie man and publisher, man of business, connoisseur, financier, philanthropist--Whitney did too many things, and did them far too well, to wish to be remembered as a scholarly collector. He bought these lovely pictures, his houses and his horses, his wines and his cigars, to add to his delight.

"I like to be honest--I like to be honest about everything--and I am bound to admit that I don't think of myself as a collector of art but more as an acquirer," he wrote.

His modesty rings true. At first he purchased sporting art to fit his sporting life. As a young man, Whitney boxed, and, in 1930, he bought "Club Night" by George Bellows, a work he would bequeath to the National Gallery of Art. Whitney also rowed--his father and his grandfather had stroked the crew at Yale--which partly explains why he bought a Thomas Eakins of oarsmen on the Schuykill; that superb little picture went to his old school. The horses that his mother bred at her Greentree Stables won two Kentucky Derbies. Jock Whitney bought his first race scene by Degas in 1928. His show is full of beachscapes, for Whitney loved the sea. His Courbet shows a hound, for Whitney was a foxhunter. He was a six-goal polo player, and Bellows' "Crowd at Polo," a picture he acquired in 1927, is among the treasures of his treasure-laden show.

His taste, though always personal, was never pioneering. The Whitney show instructs, but that is not its purpose. Scholars may appreciate the lessons that it teaches about quality and color and Picasso's early years. They may recognize, as well, how succinctly it reveals the bonds between the Pointillists and Fauves. But another set of motives brought these works together. This show is not about Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, or the growth of modern art. It is a show about Jock Whitney. It speaks of his advisers--Impressionist scholar John Rewald first among them--and of Whitney's pleasures, his money and his class.

He was, of course, extremely rich. His mother was no pauper. Quod habeo desidero, the motto of her family, was a phrase she liked to translate, "I like what I got." But the great bulk of his fortune came to Whitney from his father. When Payne Whitney died, at 51, in 1927--he apparently was stricken by severe indigestion while playing court tennis in the quarter-million-dollar annex he had added to his house--he left 28 fine automobiles, four of them Rolls-Royces. His estate was valued at $178,893,655 non-inflated dollars. No estate so large had ever been appraised in the United States.

"Whitney," observed one friend, the late Rene' d'Harnoncourt of the Museum of Modern Art, "carries his wealth, as he does his liquor, like an English gentleman." Though gentlemen do not show off, one cannot help but catch a whiff of the heady smell of money throughout the Whitney show.

Born rich, he grew richer. A friend of his once noted that Whitney seemed to have "an odd kind of Midas touch." He did not always win -- although he struggled valiantly he could not, in the end, save the New York Herald Tribune--but he very rarely lost. He was among the first investors to risk money on Technicolor film and frozen orange juice. "Life with Father" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" were among the Broadway plays he backed. In Hollywood, in partership with David O. Selznick, Whitney helped produce such hits as "Rebecca" and "A Star Is Born." In 1936, he paid $50,000 for the film rights to a newly published novel. It was "Gone With the Wind."

If one can say America has an aristocracy, Jock Whitney was of it. Both of his grandfathers were Cabinet members. The full name of his widow, to whom he left the great bulk of his art collection, is Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney. (Her older sister, Mary, married Vincent Astor; her younger sister, Babe, married William Paley, who founded CBS.) Extraordinary privilege, and the instinct for high quality that is, in the ideal case, its natural concomitant, is a sub-theme of this show.

Whitney served--and gave. When duty called, he answered. The signet ring he wore was scarred in France, in World War II, when Whitney escaped from the Nazis by jumping from the boxcar of a moving train. He later was appointed Eisenhower's ambassador to the Court of St. James's. He was generous with money. He gave millions to museums (the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery), and more millions to his schools. And yet he was far more than some latter-day Edwardian. One sees that in his art. He might have bought Old Masters. He chose another path.

Whitney was at once progressive and conservative. True, he gave to Groton, but he gave much more to young blacks he admired. Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Andrew Brimmer and Eleanor Holmes Norton were among the recipients of his "Opportunity Fellowships." Though Whitney as a connoisseur was no pioneer, the painters he admired most had all pledged their allegiance to the daring and the new.

There are 73 paintings in the Whitney show. The 20 or the 30 best share a quality so high one is hard-pressed to rank them. This is the sort of exhibition--filled with major pictures by well-beloved names--that calls up the old Fire Game. The alarm has just sounded. Which pictures would you save?

The window by Matisse is one. In photographs it has the weight of a wall-size painting, but it turns out to be only 21 inches high. The color truths discovered by Louis and by Noland can all be sensed, in embryo, in the way its colors sing.

With the twin Seurats that hang nearby--"The Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884) and "Grandcamp, Evening" (1885)--the thought of saving only one leads the mind to panic. John Rewald, the historian, says that he prefers "La Grande Jatte," but looking at the silver skies of the Grandcamp seascape, I am not so sure.

Choices just as difficult are evoked in this exhibit by Whitney's two 1889 van Goghs, one a swirling landscape in tones of blue and green, the other a self-portrait that sears. The two Ce'zannes are also fine, but the finest is the monumental still life. The choice between the two Vuillards is comparably difficult. The rowing scene by Eakins, the small Degas self-portrait (circa 1862), the large Toulouse-Lautrec, and the polo scene by Bellows also deserve rescue. Whitney's 10 Picassos present the hardest choice of all.

No finer small collection of that master's work remains in private hands. The five most impressive--a 1901 self-portrait, the 1905 "Boy with a Pipe" (a pendant to the Gallery's "Lady with a Fan"), the 1907 "Head of a Sleeping Woman" (a picture in the style of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"), the 1909 "Still Life with Vase, Gourd and Fruit" (a works that shows Picasso's indebtedness to Ce'zanne), and the Cubist still life dated 1912--are enough to justify a visit to this show. The last three of these five once were owned by Gertrude Stein. Whitney bought them late, in 1968. They were the toughest, most abstract pictures that he owned, and were hanging in his bedroom when he died.

John Singer Sargent's asymmetrical portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson (a picture that Jock Whitney inherited from his mother), the charming Rousseau jungle scene, Claude Monet's beached boats, and the strange, erotic Balthus are also first-rate works.

Though this exhibition's quality is fine from start to end, three concentrated groupings, one stronger than the other, carry special weight. The Picasso wall is one, the Pointillists the second, the Fauve group is the third.

One expects Seurat to sing, but here he is provided surprising competition by the major works by lesser men that hang in the same room. One will never see a finer Henri Edmond Cross than "The Grape Harvest" (1892), a picture Rewald calls "Cross's 'La Grande Jatte,' " or a better The'o van Rysselberghe than "The Harbor at Cette" (1892), or a Paul Signac as beautiful as "Fishing Boats in the Sunset" of 1891. One great strength of this show is the way it demonstrates how their points of glowing color were adapted, though to different ends, by Matisse, Picasso and the early Fauves.

Whitney's Fauve paintings are awesome. One would not believe, if the evidence were not on view, that Raul Dufy, a hack in later life, was capable of painting pictures as exalted as the two that he has here. The two Andre' Derains, both left to the Gallery, are also very fine, and Georges Braque's 1907 harbor view is arguably the best Fauve picture he made.

Not all the paintings here are grand. Pissarro's portrait of his daughter is not a Pissarro of the highest rank, and the Rufino Tamayo seems out of place. But the Whitney exhibition, which closes Oct. 2, remains, despite such lapses, an extraordinary show.

One leaves it moved, and awed--and teased by expectation. What, the viewer wonders, will happen to these paintings?

A number already have been distributed to Yale, the National Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art (founded by a relative) and the Museum of Modern Art. The fate of the remaining works has not yet been determined. The decision is Betsey Whitney's. But her husband's openhandedness, his loyalty and modesty and sense of public service, the whole tenor of his life, leads one to believe that more gifts are still to come.