The 250 members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters don't do very much these days. Art Buchwald, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Andrew Wyeth, Jasper Johns and others of their company meet every now and then at their institution's elegant palazzo in Manhattan. They hold ceremonial dinners. They distribute grants and honors to artists they deem worthy. They're not especially self-important. But once upon a time, in the heyday of the Gilded Age, the members took themselves very seriously indeed.

They gave each other golden keys and golden medals. They wore in their lapels rosettes of regal purple. Their chairs resembled thrones. They thought themselves terrific. They would have hated our reaction to "Portraits From the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters," the little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Its objects were collected so that common folk like thee and me could gaze on them in awe. Instead we tend to grin.

It is not the art that makes us giggle. Some of it is splendid. It is the smug self-satisfaction that hovers round this show.

There is something deeply silly about Top 10 lists and halls of fame. There is also something silly about the Parnassian pretensions that rule this exhibition. The gentlemen who founded the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1898 would have found our easy smiling quite incomprehensible. They were deeply pompous men.

They wore stern, dark suits and well-trimmed beards and tall hats of black silk. They affected English manners. They were clubbable, the lot of them. The masses must be taught, they thought. Their "distinguished society of distinguished men" -- based on the examples of the Royal Academies of Britain and the Acade'mie Franc aise -- would help their stumbling nation recognize the Beautiful. They were determined to confront "the slack fraternalism of democracy" with what they chose to call "the aristocratic absolutes of the arts."

They saw themselves as the elect. Founder Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the smuggest of the lot, thought their gathered portraits -- from which this show is drawn -- someday would be recognized as "a sort of Walhalla."

They recognized the enemy. It was everywhere around them. The enemy was ugliness, vulgarity, insurgency, puerility -- and all that modern art. Their watchwords would be beauty, dignity, decorum. The Past would be their guide.

Europe's past especially. The buildings they admired would recall Greece and Rome. The actors they approved would speak as clearly as the British. The medals they'd distribute (a number are on view) would show young Greeks wreathed in laurel, Apollo with his lyre and Pegasus in flight.

Newness made them blanch. As late as 1933, when poets T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and Robinson Jeffers were being proposed for membership, Johnson prophesied disaster. "The radicals," he warned, "will soon be in control."

"It is easier," he added in disgust, "to get into the Institute than into the Roasted Peanut Dealers Association."

Art critic Royal Cortissoz, who was elected to the Institute in 1908 and to the more elite Academy, its 50-member offshoot, in 1924, was comparably offended by painters of the modern sort. He thought Picasso and Matisse quite beyond the pale. Cortissoz dismissed Ce'zanne as "a second-rate Impressionist" and complained that van Gogh had "little if any sense of beauty and spoiled a lot of canvas with crude, quite unimportant pictures." Cortissoz -- whose sneering eye and arrogance is apparent in his portrait here -- declared himself "a traditionalist, steadfastly opposed to the inadequacies and bizarre eccentricities of modernism."

He was not alone. Consider, for example, Frederick Wellington Ruckstull (1853-1942), whose bronze bust is on display. A charter member of the Institute, Ruckstull spent much of his life railing against what he called "insane 'abstractionism.' " The gallery's Lillian B. Miller, who wrote the informative, amusing exhibition catalogue, writes that he "lambasted Brancusi, Matisse, Duchamp, Van Gogh, Ce'zanne and Picasso," and refused to work with Rodin because the sculptor's works "repulsed him." "Great Works of Art and What Makes Them Great," a book that Ruckstull published in 1925, used his own works as examples. He would have taken small offense from the objects in this show.

Many of these sitters -- Mark Twain, for example, who was elected to the Institute in 1898, and then to the Academy in 1904, or subtle Henry James (Institute 1898, Academy 1905) -- were wonderfully inventive. But would not guess that from their handsome portraits by Abbott Handerson Thayer (Institute 1898, Academy 1904). His skills are most impressive. He made admirable examples of academic art.

So did Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Institute 1898, Academy 1904). Saint-Gaudens, whose mournful monument to Mrs. Henry Adams is one of Washington's best sculptures, was an artist who personified the Academy's ideals. The little medal-portrait he made in 1880 of his friend John Singer Sargent (Institute 1905, Academy 1905) might be an antique Roman coin. (Despite its modest inscription -- "BRVTTO/RITRATO" ("Sorry portrait") -- it is not bad at all. Neither is Saint-Gaudens' bronze of architect Charles Follen McKim (Institute 1898, Academy 1905).

Even better is his portrait of painter William Merritt Chase (Institute 1898, Academy 1908). That bas-relief in bronze, which also sings of Italy and Renaissance traditions, is among the most impressive objects in the show.

Daniel Chester French (Institute 1898, Academy 1905) appears in a painting by Robert William Vonnoh. He looks, as do so many other worthies in this show, wonderfully genteel. He wears a stiff white collar, a bow tie and a business suit, despite the blob of clay he holds in his left hand. His head is long and slender, and so too are his fingers. You'd never guess it from that painting, but much of French's sculpture -- the statue of the "Minute Man," the sexy Dupont Circle fountain and the awesome "Seated Lincoln" on the Mall -- is splendidly robust.

Many of these portraits somehow drain their sitters of robustness and good humor. Booth Tarkington (Institute 1908, Academy 1920), gained his fame by writing "Penrod," "Seventeen" and other books that pleased the young. But in his full-length portrait here by painter Wayman Adams (Institute 1929) he shows up with a cane, a greatcoat and a furry dog, and looks more a British nobleman than a Hoosier sage.

Julia Ward Howe, the Institute's first female member (she was elected in 1907 at the age of 88), wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." But no trace of the Grapes of Wrath disturbs her gentle portrait. She wears a little cap of lace and has an oddly vacant gaze. The picture's ornate frame, with its carved columns and its oak leaves, might have been designed for a Florentine Madonna.

Not all of these distinguished folk thought much of the Academy. Henry James, for instance, believed that that "incongruous association" served no apparent purpose. His tart-tongued brother William was even more dismissive. Though tapped for the Academy in 1909, he turned the honor down. He explained he preferred not to belong to an organization whose sole purpose was "distinguishing certain individuals (with their own connivance) and enabling them to say to the world at large 'we are in and you are out.' " His inclinations to decline, he added, were confirmed "by the fact that my younger and shallower and vainer brother is already in the Academy, and that if I were there too, the other families represented might think the James influence too rank and strong."

Ezra Pound, the poet, was elected to the Institute in 1938. But he never bothered picking up his gilded parchment certificate. (That's why it is here.) Pound dismissed the institution as one hopelessly controlled by "those fossilized old jossers."

No American man of letters attacked the Academy more roundly than Sinclair Lewis. He listed his complaints while giving his acceptance speech for the 1930 Nobel Prize for literature. "The Academy," he told the Swedish audience, "does not represent Literary America of today -- it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . . While most of our few giants are excluded, The Academy does have room to include three extraordinarily bad poets, two very melodramatic and insignificant playwrights, two gentlemen who are known only because they are university presidents . . . and several gentlemen of whom -- I sadly confess my ignorance -- I have never heard."

The Academicians were horrified. When Lewis was nominated for the Institute in 1934, they were even more aghast. Robert Underwood Johnson did his best to blackball the "objectionable novelist." Booth Tarkington also declared himself opposed: "S. Lewis should never become a member of the Academy after what he said of it when he danced naked before the Swedes in rapture over himself." But how could his fellow writers continue to exclude their nation's only Nobel Laureate? Lewis was elected to the Institute in 1935 and to the Academy two years later. He did not decline the honor. In his pleasing pastel portrait here by Leonebel Jacobs, the "objectionable novelist" holds his hand over his mouth.

Of all the pictures on display, perhaps the most impressive is Martha Susan Baker's moody seated portrait of writer Carl Van Vechten (Institute 1961). He described the picture's making: "I climbed into the model-chair, seated myself, grasped the green book that was part of the composition, and automatically assumed that woe-begone expression that is worn by all amateurs who pose for their portraits . . . was also bored. My face must have showed it. {The painter} flung down her brushes. 'It's no good, no good at all,' she announced. 'You have no expression today. I can't get behind your mask.'

"She never did get behind the mask," he added. "To that extent I triumphed." But whether he is masked or not, Van Vechten's staring likeness grabs the viewer's eye.

Among the other worthies portrayed here are Maude Adams, the actress who first played Peter Pan; the painter Childe Hassam (who appears in a self-portrait); and Ignace Jan Paderewski, the pianist and composer. Paderewski was included under a special dispensation for distinguished foreign artists. He was the first such selection from outside the United Kingdom.

Britishness is sensed often in this show. One sees it in particular in the monocled and haughty portrait of actor George Arliss, which was done in 1913 by the artist Cecilia Beaux (Institute 1930, Academy 1933). Arliss -- the fifth recipient of the Academy's Medal for Good Diction on the Stage -- was of course an Englishman. Of the 18 speakers who have received the medal since, six were born in Britain.

Standing midst the portraits in the gallery's exhibit is a high-backed wooden chair. The bronze plaques on its back tell us it has been assigned to Academicians William Dean Howells (1904-1920), Tarkington (1920-1946), Charles Austin Beard (1946-1948), Leon Kroll (1948-1974) and Nuam Gabo (1975-1977). Since 1978, that thronelike chair has borne the name of Willem de Kooning.

It is nice to think about the look of abject horror that would have passed across the bearded face of Robert Underwood Johnson had he lived long enough to see one of de Kooning's red-lipped, slashed-up women.

"Portraits From the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters" will travel to the institution's headquarters on Audubon Terrace in upper Manhattan after closing at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, on Sept. 20.