AT FIRST GLANCE there seems to be no decent way out of the nasty controversy now raging about the Senate's portrait of James O. Eastland. The artist who painted the portrait, Charles M. Mount, has filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming that the University of Mississippi Foundation, which commissioned the work, owes him $13,450. "We paid him every cent that was contributed by the senator's friends," said Rufus T. Jones, the university's director of development, in a comment tinged with sadness. That amount came to a mere $3,000, which in proportion to the entire five-foot portrait might just about cover the cost of the senator's head.

But the senator's head may, in fact, offer the solution to this mess, for if you look closely at Mr. Mount's portrait, it doesn't really look like Sen. Eastland at all. Well, it looks a little like Sen. Eastland-in about the same degree as Bullets coach Dick Motta looks like Sen. Howard Baker-but it looks a great deal more like Sen. Sam Ervin. (When it comes to that, the portrait looks more like Sidney Greenstreet or Alfred Hitchcock than either of the senators, but for the moment that isn't pertinent.) The point is that Mr. Mount has created a sort of ideal portrait of a venerable Southern senator, and therein may lie the settlement of his suit.

For while there's no doubt that $13,450 is a heap of money to dish out for the portrait of one senator, it is considerably less to pay for two. And at present there is no portrait of Sen. Ervin hanging in the Senate. Since, therefore, the portrait looks more like Sen. Ervin, his friends might contribute, say, $7,000, thus leaving $6,450 for the friends of Sen. Eastland. If Sen. Eastland's friends still cannot raise the remaining sum, Mr. Mount may be willing to wait and see what some of the current Southern senators turn out to look like when they too grow venerable. Then they might chip in as well.

Of course, the senators themselves might object to such depersonalization, but these are days for frugality and cooperation, as they often remind us. Such a gesture would certainly be in keeping with the spirit of the times, and of the Senate "club." All for one. One for all. CAPTION: Picture, no caption