The National Museum of Women in the Arts, doing just what it's supposed to do, has retrieved from obscurity Sofonisba Anguissola, a painter of the Renaissance ignored far too long by most masculinist historians, and nearly everybody else.

Anguissola, who was born circa 1535 in prosperous Cremona in Northern Italy, does not deserve to be forgotten. Her painting is too competent, her story too adventurous (she lost her first husband to pirates, she befriended kings and queens), her accomplishments too rare. When she was still an adolescent her drawings were critiqued and praised by mighty Michelangelo. Highly skilled and highly placed, she moved in the same circles as the sublime Titian. She must have known El Greco, for they served King Philip II of Spain together. It is certain she met Rubens.

And later, in Palermo, blind but still incisive (she lived to nearly 90), she gave sharp advice on painting to suave Anthony van Dyck. Sofonisba Anguissola is one of the very few painters of her sex to be found among the masters of 16th-century art. In character, in courage, she may well have been equal to the best of them. But purely as a painter she wasn't in their league. She wasn't even close.

Anguissola was a society painter. And her retrospective shows that she was every inch a lady. Not so very long ago, well-bred, well-brought-up ladies of accomplishment were expected to display their skills at harmony and music (Anguissola painted herself at the keyboard), at dancing and embroidery and, not least of all, at capturing a likeness. Anguissola thrived at the dawn of that tradition. Denied -- because she was a woman -- any opportunity of playing with the guys, of risking competitions or embellishing grand churches, she was nonetheless endowed with one significant advantage. She was an educated person of aristocratic birth.

One sees that in her portraits. Entirely unthreatening, they hymn without embarrassment the heights of High Society. Here, in 1561, is Isabel of Valois, daughter of the King of France and of Catherine de' Medici, who has become the child bride of Philip II of Spain. Here, too, is the king himself, wearing around his noble neck the Order of the Golden Fleece. And here is Anne of Austria, Philip's niece and later his wife. And here, in grand state portraits, are the two infantas: Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela, both of whom are dressed to kill.

Though their faces vary, their attitudes -- and pearls -- are pretty much all the same, as if they were posing for some regal high school yearbook. In the pantheon of portraitists, Sofonisba Anguissola sits a whole lot closer to stale Karsh of Ottawa than she does to Cezanne.

As a youngster in Cremona, happily at home with her learned, gifted sisters, she had been vastly more inventive. The paintings she completed before heading off to Spain in 1559 -- especially "The Chess Game" (1555), the recently rediscovered "Self-Portrait at the Easel" (1556) and the "Massimiliano Stampa" of 1559, which is one of the delights of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore -- are the freest in the show. Once she'd agreed to serve the court, freedom and invention were no longer her thing.

She'd been summoned by King Philip not as a court painter, but rather as a lady-in-waiting to the 14-year-old French girl who liked to draw and would soon be queen of Spain.

"The wedding," scholar Maria Kusche tells us in the catalogue, "took place on the day after Isabel arrived, 29 January {1560}. . . . That night there was a ball. This must have been the first occasion for everyone to notice the young Italian lady, and all eyes were fixed on her." Sofonisba was the first female to dance; she also was among the last.

"During the last dance a torch was passed around. . . . When Sofonisba received the torch from the Prince de La Roche, the queen's cousin . . . she danced with the duke {of Infantado} and then passed the torch to the king himself. Philip II, who must have been charmed with her grace and self-confidence, honored her with a very deep bow. With that, her position at court was established."

There were 16 ladies-in-waiting, and the pay was noteworthy. In addition to 100 ducats a year in ordinary salary, Anguissola received funds for "two servants, a lady's maid and a groom, as well as money for the washerwoman, for candles and for horse or mule feed," Kusche writes. She also "received a lifelong pension of 200 ducats, raised from taxes on the wines produced in Cremona." She wasn't paid for her pictures -- most were "gifts" to the sovereigns -- but Anguissola was good enough to assume a place beside Alonso Sanchez Coello, Anthonis Mor and other long-forgotten artists of the court of Spain. Her flattering and formal pictures were produced for purposes of state. One, of the hunchbacked Prince Don Carlo, which Anguissola finished in 1567, so pleased the king himself he ordered 19 copies made. Anguissola not only instructed the queen, she also taught the queen's daughters until, in 1573, she was pensioned off (at 1,000 ducats a year) and handed in marriage to Don Fabrizio de Moncada, an aristocrat of Sicily. She lived another 50 years, renowned as a grande dame. She had another happy marriage, too (to a Genoese sea captain), and numerous adventures.

But save for a few sacred works, based on the compositions of others, the present retrospective ends with her departure from the court. She'd spent 14 years in Spain.

Hardly Great, but . . .

"Where are the great women artists?" One often heard that question when the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened in 1987. But despite its best intentions, the breadth of its collecting and meticulous research by gender-conscious scholars, the answer is not much clearer now than then.

Somewhere in the annals of international art history there may well exist an undiscovered master long denied a place at the peak of her profession by patriarchal blindness. But Sofonisba Anguissola doesn't fit the bill. Her retrospective pleases. It irritates as well.

What's especially exasperating is the way this show strives to paint her as more impressive than she is. The catalogue begins by calling her, excessively, "the first woman painter." It closes by describing her, excessively again, as "a uniquely spellbinding actress on the stage of time." The number of her self-portraits is breathlessly described as "surprisingly prodigious"; she left about a dozen. The museum, in a similar vein, calls her "this great artist." But she was no such thing.

On the evidence presented here -- 20 of her works are on view -- Anguissola was a painter of the second rank. Her skills were merely middling. Her intentions, for the most part, were entirely conventional. Yet because she was a woman, her champions are determined to discover in her early works a subtle coded challenge to the patriarchal standards of 16th-century Europe.

One such seeker of subversions is Mary D. Garrard of American University. She's a student of the Renaissance and a feminist art historian. Her essay on the painter accompanies the show. Garrard's "Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman" is based on a longer piece, "Here's Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist," which she published last autumn in the journal Renaissance Quarterly.

Anguissola, writes Garrard, was a sort of subversive who concealed in her early works "daring, socially heretical critiques" of Renaissance conventions. It's a tantalizing thought. What's unconvincing is the proof.

Take the question of the mahlstick, the little pole some painters use to lend steadiness to the hand that holds the brush. In Anguissola's double portrait of "Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola," Sofonisba shows her teacher (he's now as little known as she is) using that unmanly stick in order, writes Garrard, "to suggest that he was an uncreative imitator." One trouble with that argument is a recently rediscovered self-portrait by the painter -- it's on the cover of the catalogue -- that shows her very clearly with a mahlstick in her hand.

Oops.

And then there is her jewelry, or, more accurately, its absence, of which Garrard makes much. Her "self-image is unusually austere," writes the scholar. "In an age of flamboyant clothing and jewelry and celebrated feminine display, Sofonisba seems to have avoided in the extreme those associations with vanity and luxury traditionally ascribed to women." Instead she dressed severely, usually in black, as if dressing for success, rather like a man, "boldly appropriat{ing} all the elevating signifiers that the male-courtier model had to offer." The chief flaw in that argument is that it cracks before the art. Consider for example the round self-portrait here from Florence, in which the painter shows herself with earrings made of gold and pearls, and chains of sparkling jewelry.

And then there is "The Chess Game," which shows the artist's sisters happily at play in what Garrard describes as "a kind of female Eden and a self-celebration of woman's accomplishments and talents." Why then, the viewer wonders, are all the sisters shown in rich brocades and golden chains and with bright pearls in their hair? Even odder is the scholar's reading of the portrait of Giulo Clovio, in which Anguissola depicts this miniaturist (who's pretty well forgotten, too) holding a small painting of a woman. Does Sofonisba, Garrard asks, "mean to dramatize the plight of the female artist, miniaturized, constricted by foreshortening, and doomed to marginal existence in the clutches of this artistic King Kong, the giganticized male artist?" Well, maybe and maybe not. One big portrait on display depicts Isabel of Spain holding in her hand a similarly scaled portrait of her husband and her king. Is she crushing the poor monarch? Did Anguissola mean to depict her as Queen Kong?

One problem with too many American museums is that they focus too often on what they think are the peaks of art, as if nothing of significance could be found in valleys. The Anguissola retrospective is a valley exhibition. It recounts a telling and instructive, if not especially exalted, chapter in the history of women and of art. "Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman" already has been seen in Cremona and in Vienna. This will be its sole showing in America. Alitalia Airlines, the Host Marriott Corp., Ourisman Automotive and the National Endowment for the Arts are among its sponsors. The exhibition closes June 25. CAPTION: Sofonisba Anguissola's earliest works, done before she left Cremona for the court of Spain's King Philip in 1559, were her best, including "The Chess Game," clockwise from above left, "Massimiliano Stampa" and "Self-Portrait at the Easel."