To find what's happening in art I sometimes call to memory the paintings I have seen to hang them for my mind's eye, all of them together, and every time I do so I feel a chill of absence, a sense of something fine departing. What's leaving is the painted portrait of the face.

Face painting has been fading out. It may be, at last, returning. There are many signs around us now that point in that direction. Museums across the country are focusing on portraits as they seldom have before, but the ones they show are old ones. The paintings of our own day remain mostly faceless. For nearly 30 years now that old, exquisite enterprise--of capturing a person's look not swiftly with a shutter-click but slowly with a brush--has been loosening the hold it once had on art.

To look into the markings put down by a brush and in there meet the eyes of another human being is to partake in a small miracle. Spirit has entered matter, flesh has escaped time. In the Egypt of 2,000 years ago, where little lifelike portraits were prepared for the mummified dead, and in Leonardo's Florence, and in 17th-century Delhi and 19th-century France--and in Norman Rockwell's studio, too, and Cezanne's, and Picasso's, well after photography had set its mark on portraiture--painters sought that miracle. Recognizing a likeness is easy, painting one is difficult. It takes a trained professional. That's what painters do.

We learn from faces. We look at them more acutely than we look at anything else, because knowing how to do so is built into our brains. If, to experiment, you took a 100-yard-long sheet and put 100 holes in it through which 100 friends extended their right hands, you'd be hard-pressed to know which belonged to whom. But who forgets a face?

Portraits have for centuries fulfilled many needs. They've personified the past (rich people in the Renaissance kept cabinets of coins just to look into the faces of Alexander and Julius Caesar). They've been instruments of power (think of all the big shots standing tall in portraits, showing their stature in the fineness of their linen and the hauteur of their stance). Portraits have served also to proclaim one's prized possessions (the background rolling acres, the bejeweled trophy wife), and lots of them are tedious, but a wondrous painted portrait is something very grand.

Observers of new art don't see a lot of them. If you wander through the galleries where living artists show, or visit the biennials of contemporary art, you'll see assemblages of many kinds, many abstractions and innumerable photographs, but you'll seldom find a portrait painted patiently by hand.

Portraiture was central once. American art history is nearly unthinkable without it. The limners of colonial days, clumsy though they were, made their living at it, and so did John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart and somber Thomas Eakins, and so did Andy Warhol--and then it sort of stopped.

You could feel it stopping when the figure painter Philip Pearlstein began to use the framing edge to cut off the top half of his people's heads, and when politically minded artists began to show us types (the Woman or the Suit, or the Victim of Oppression) instead of individuals. Portraiture in painting--often marginalized as dull, shock-free and irrelevant and hopelessly old-fashioned--had begun to go to pieces.

Much of it went flat, especially those likenesses that were not made from life but rather copied from flat photographs. Some of it went conceptual (Chuck Close's, for example, were given to the grid), and some, much of it delicious, shot off toward cartooning (Alice Neel's, for example, or David Levine's, or Red Grooms's).

It's not that we don't see a lot of faces, we see millions. Faces swarm around us. We see them around our dining room tables, flickering on talk shows, enormous on billboards, bleary-eyed in our mirrors, but among the brush strokes of new painting, images of faces are difficult to find.

But not entirely, of course. A few painters of high skill, especially in Britain, have adhered to the old faith.

Chief among them now is Lucian Freud, a 76-year-old painter incapable of flattery who is also, incidentally, Sigmund's youngest grandson. The grandfather was a psyche-inspector, and so is the grandson, who also takes his time. Freud doesn't hurry, and he doesn't use cameras. He has his sitter sit there, session after session, in different moods, in different lights, until he comprehends just who is looking back. When painting self-portraits, he is similarly conscientious. Like psychoanalysis, his process is a slow one, which may well stretch for years.

The British have been less dismissive of face painting than most. They get it, as they get acting. Their culture has a knack for personifying thought. When Milton meditates on good and evil, he does not just philosophize in the manner of the French, he has Satan talk to God. Shakespeare, Benny Hill, Alec Guinness, Dickens--they all generalize infrequently, they individualize instead. So do the best of the English face painters. Stare into a portrait summoned by the brush of Lucian Freud or David Hockney, the late Francis Bacon or the late Stanley Spencer, and there is someone staring back.

American face painters, even the most admirable, have received less acclaim. Too few people have, for instance, heard of Ivan Albright of Chicago and Vermont. He died a few months shy of his 87th birthday in 1996. What small fame he was given flowed from one truly creepy object, which he produced for the 1940s movie of Oscar Wilde's fable "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a portrait increasingly scarred by degeneracy and evil as if evil were acid. His best portraits were less theatrical. He sought, as he put it, to paint "the most human head ever made," and in his last years he came close.

His subject was his dying self. They were little paintings, only about a foot high. Still, Albright fashioned 20, and the sight of them together at the Art Institute of Chicago--you can almost feel his flesh and strength softening--is enough to break the heart.

There are other painters who explore similar traditions--Odd Nerdrum, for example, and Gregory Gillespie, or Washington's Joe Shannon--but few of them are stars. The contemporary market pays them slight attention. But art fashions are fashions, and not immune to change.

Face painting may feel ghostly now, but specters have a way of returning from the grave.

One can sense it being summoned. Though offhandedly dismissed in certain avant-gardist circles, face painting is nowadays thriving in museums--where portrait exhibitions have in recent months been drawing big and absorbed crowds.

Last season's Chuck Close show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was a hit, and so was the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the National Gallery, and so was "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," also at the gallery, which completes its local run today.

Museums elsewhere are also focusing on face painting. The Ingres show is heading to Manhattan, to the Metropolitan. On the West Coast, crowds have been climbing the hill to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to see "Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York," a show that's set to visit Baltimore in March. The hottest exhibition in London now is one of self-portraits by Rembrandt.

More portrait shows are coming. In Hartford, Conn., the fall season at the Wadsworth Atheneum will open with "Here's Looking at You: Portraits From the Collection," and "About Face: Andy Warhol's Portraits" will follow on Sept. 24.

"Faces of Impressionism: Portraits From American Collections" goes on view Oct. 10 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Most impressionist exhibits stress sun-dappled landscapes. This one stresses face painting instead.

So will the van Gogh portrait show that is now being arranged by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Old Egyptian "Fayum portraits"--whose style is Greco-Roman, whose function pure Egyptian--will be seen early next year in an exhibition called "Ancient Faces" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Camera-made portraits will also be receiving considerable attention in the season just beginning. Annie Leibovitz's photographs of women will go on exhibition Oct. 27 at the Corcoran, and portraits from the long career of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the mighty French photographer, will go on view two days later at the National Portrait Gallery.

And even Norman Rockwell, who knew just what he was doing when he painted faces, is about to get his due. "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," his retrospective, is going on a seven-city coast-to-coast tour, which begins at Atlanta's High Museum of Art on Nov. 6 and ends at the Guggenheim in February 2002.

Next summer, from June 17 to Sept. 24, the Rockwell retrospective will be in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Painted landscapes are like windows that open to the countryside. Looking at abstractions is like peering into space, into timelessness and vastness. But good portraits are inhabited, and not only by the sitter, and not only by the painter whose skill and individuality are also in the art. Most of us in real life do not peer at one another. To do so is regarded as overly intrusive, challenging or rude. But portraits invite staring. Because the best of them ignite in us a jolt of recognition--and what could be more personal?--we are in there, too.