By James Endrst, The Hartford Courant

Amy Brenneman's star is on the rise again.

Brenneman first gained fame, some notoriety and a couple of Emmy nominations for her role as Officer Janice Licalsi in the first season of ABC's NYPD Blue - a gutsy choice, considering the controversial first episode in which she appeared partially nude.

This month, Brenneman sweeps back into television homes in two high-profile roles.

First up is Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist, an hourlong drama (7 p.m. Tuesday) that is part of HBO's "The Artists' Specials," a series that focuses on the great artists, their encounters with young people and impact on the artists' work.

Cassatt, who defied 19th-century convention by leaving her home in Philadelphia at age 22 to pursue a career as an artist, settled in Paris and became best known for her paintings depicting women and children.

Brenneman admits she wasn't sure what she was getting into.

"At first," she said, "I gotta be honest; I had this moment of 'Ewww ... children's programming!' But then I thought, 'You know what? I could get behind this.' I was very touched by what it was trying to do.

"The more research I did about this woman," she said, "the more fascinating she got."

Though Brenneman, 34, is the star of the piece as Cassatt, the actress has gotten more attention by appearing on NBC's Frasier as star Kelsey Grammer's girlfriend Faye Moskowitz. She shows up again in the season finale on May 20, 9 p.m., WESH-Channel 2.

It will, in all likelihood, be the last of several episodes in which Brenneman has appeared, a stint that had already gone on longer than she originally expected.

"They kept saying, 'You're one of the few viable women for Frasier, so we have to keep you in the mix,"' Brenneman said, laughing, and adding, "It seems like I'm not going to be around [after the season-ender), but never say never."

Her exit from Frasier may be for the best, because what the actress is waiting for is a go on what could be the biggest project of her career.

It's called Shades of Gray, a pilot for CBS that she hopes will be picked up for the fall. A formal announcement from the network is expected later this month.

Shades of Gray, which stars Brenneman as Amy Gray, focuses on three generations of women and is inspired by the real-life story of Brenneman's mother, Superior Court trial referee Frederica S. Brenneman.

It's a drama that the actress, who is also an executive producer, said is not unlike NBC's Providence. In the pilot - directed by Brenneman's husband, Brad Silberling - Amy, a lawyer, moves back home to her native Hartford, Conn. After separating from her husband, she becomes a judge and settles in - her young daughter in tow - with her social-worker mom (Tyne Daly).

"I'm interested in real family vibes," said Brenneman. "I'm interested in where we come from and who we learn from. ... I looked around at what was considered women's programming, and I wanted to shoot myself because I thought, 'It's so soft. It's so sentimental.' The women that I know - No. 1 being my own mother - are incredibly smart, incredibly tough and they're really funny."

If Shades of Gray does see the light of day in prime time, comparisons will certainly be to Providence, which Brenneman says is not a problem. Not in the least, considering that show's success.

"It's funny," she says. "When Providence debuted and people watched it, and I was way in the process of developing Shades of Gray, part of me thought, 'Oh no!' And then part of me thought, 'Great!' "

Actually, says the actress, Shades of Gray is more like Felicity for grown-ups."