THOMAS JEFFERSON, portrayed in all his friendly, flamboyant, aristocratic good looks, stands at the head of the T stairs in the exhibit hall of the James Madison Library. After seeing that portrait, the ones of James Madison, called by even his wife, "the great little Madison," seem a shade anticlimactic.

This has always been so. Who would notice Madison, after being in the presence of Jefferson, one of the most commanding figures of the American Revolution?

Today, sadly, few people remember much about James Madison except that his wife, Dolley, saved the red curtains and George Washington's portrait when the White House was burned during the War of 1812.

Even Madison's first memorial, built after all these years, is only an annex to the main building of the Library of Congress, now named after Thomas Jefferson, at 10 First St. SE. Jefferson's personal library was the core of that august institution.

(Since the opening of the Madison Library building at 101 Independence Ave. SE, all the Library of Congress buildings on Capitol Hill have been renamed. The building at 110 Independence Ave. SE, once called the annex and then the Jeffferson, is now the John Adams building.)

Now the first exhibit, "James Madison and the Search for Nationhood," just opened in the Madison Library, finally gives Madison his due.

The exhibit shows 175 items -- about half from the Library's own extensive Madison collections -- including a vast number of priceless documents of the early days of the nation. Nearly 60 museums, societies, libraries and private collectors lent other papers, furniture, decorative arts, paintings and memorabilia.

It is obvious that Madison was a person of considerable taste and money.

His favorite Campeachy easy chair was ordered for him by Jefferson. Jefferson had orginally ordered three from Mexico, but they were lost at sea. He finally got two from a New Orleans friend and had them copied at Monticello. Another chair, by an anonymous French furniture maker, has finely carved mahogany arms. Charles Honore Lannuier in New York, one of the finest cabinetmakers of the time, made the American Empire-style card table.

Madison's magnificent five-piece, sterling-silver coffee and tea service was one of two at his house, Montpelier -- one in the dining room, the other in the living room. They were made by Ward & Bartholomew in 1804-09. After Madison's death, Dolley Madison was "in reduced circumstances," partly because of the vast entertaining bills at Montpelier. She hocked the pots. They had bought the cruet stand and candlesticks, made in Paris by Roch-Louis Dany in 1789, from James Monroe, who also sold Madison the Louis XVI side chairs in the Madison Library show. Though the Madisons never went to France, they were fond of French decoration and used French objects in the White House--many bought for them by Jefferson and Monroe. Dolley Madison was criticized, as were many first ladies after her, for the $20,000 she spent with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe on decorations for the mansion. Madison's ice-cream server, for the dish popularized by Jefferson, has a place for ice in the top.

Photograph of Montpelier in the exhibit shows that Madison had a large stake to protect in the Revolution. Montpelier, four miles west of Orange, Va., is owned today by Marion Dupont Scott. Montpelier and James Monroe's home, Oak Hill (8 miles south of Leesburg, Va. on US Rt. 15) which is owned by Joseph and Gene Prendergast, are probably the only two great presidential houses still privately owned. Luckily, both are splendidly maintained.

And nearby the photograph in the Madison Library exhibit is Madison's father's account book for the first building at Montpelier, built before 1765: a two-room log house with weatherboard siding. The account book lists costs for dowling the logs, nailing weatherboards, hewing black walnut stock.

A conjectural plan of the Montpelier house originally mounted here (1755-97) is by Nicholas A. Pappas. It shows a center plan with four important rooms opening off a hallway. Little is left visible today of this core.

From this house, a grand one of the time, is an 18th-century plate from China and a black cherry Chippendale-style side chair (circa 1770) which was likely made on the plantation, for Madison's parents were people of education, taste and culture.

The miniature paintings are so vivid as to practically summon the people back. Two very poignant miniatures painted in 1783 by Charles Wilson Peale were exchanged upon the engagement of Madison and Catherine Floyd. Madison looks very young indeed. Catherine Floyd has sultry but rather devious good looks. She broke off the engagement. Another miniature is of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull, lent by the White House. Peale's swashbuckling portrait of Washington, explaining much of his appeal, appears here in a mezzotint by Valentine Greene. An 1805 portrait of Madison by Gilbert Stuart shows how much of his hair, and his youth, was lost by that time.

Other pictures in the exhibit chronicle the battle of the Constitution and the Guerrier, and a colored etching of a sketch for "the Regent's speech on Mad-Ass-Son's Insanity" by George Cruikshank.

Amos Doolittle's engraving after Peter La Cour of "Federal Hall The Seat of Congress" is a wonderful evocation of the architecture of the time, with the bunting tied on the columns and all the gentlemen with their buttoned-down coats looking on as some great document is exchanged. The federal eagle flies on the cornice work and the steeple clock presides over it all.

William Hogarth's "An Election Entertainment" shows the British election custom of kegs of rum or cider at the polls, provided by the candidate. The custom immigrated to the colonies. When Madison was running for the house of delegates in 1776 in Orange County, he didn't stand the voters their expected drink, and he lost.

An aquatint of New Orleans from the Marigny plantation in 1803 reminds us that Madison was secretary of state during the Louisiana Purchase.

Two rarely exhibited watercolors by George Munger showing the Capitol and the "President's House" after the British burned them during the War of 1812 are included in the Madison exhibition, along with a letter from Dolley Madison telling of her last-minute escape.

Madison's old age is recalled in "The Virginia Constitutional Convention (1796-1872)," painted by George Catlin; Madison, in the foreground, looks, as someone said, like a mushroom on a stick. But his words were always influential, though he was unsuccessful in getting the Virginians to modify their policy toward blacks. He himself had freed his own valet years before in Philadelphia. For the first time in a long time, the oil painting, Catlin's own key to the participants, and a watercolor of the event, are all shown together.

Accompanying the exhibit is a compact biography by Robert A. Rutland, editor-in-chief of "The Papers of James Madison" at the University of Virginia, and guest curators Conover Hunt Jones and Kym S. Rice.

In its foreword, Daniel J. Boorstin, librarian of Congress and an eminent historian, puts Madison in his place:

"James Madison has stood so long in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson that he has become one of the most underestimated figures in our nation's history. Rich in the private virtues needed for a great public man, Madison was adept at enlisting his eminent contempories. He was not greedy for fame."

In "The Federalist" Boorstin pays tribute to Madison's "political effectiveness, philosophic clarity and polemic eloquence," which led to his successes in attaining a central government during the Constitutional Convention, in passing the Bill of Rights and, as the fourth president, in holding the country together during the War of 1812.

Jefferson called Madison "the greatest man in the world." John F. Kennedy called him "one of our most underrated presidents."

Madison lived 85 years, 1751-1836, and his political life extended over most of those years. He was only 25 when he was a delegate to the 1776 Constitutional Convention, and he gave a major speech only two years before he died.

In the exhibit, the family Bible is open to the page where James Madison's birth is recorded. Madison was born in Port Conway, Va., on midnight between March 5 and 6, 1750. His parents had been married on Sept. 15, 1749. He was the oldest of 11, heir to 4,000 acres in Orange, near Charlottesville. He was one of the four who went from being lord of the manor and patriarch of the plantations to being president of the United States.

Rutland, in his book, points out the great coincidence that founded the Republic: the eight great patriots who were born within a few years of each other -- and within a 150-mile radius: George Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, George Mason, Monroe and Madison.

Like Jefferson, Madison was a writer; examples of his writing are thick in the exhibit. He even wrote part of George Washington's farewell address. Madison wrote with a meticulously small handwriting, not wasting an inch of paper. One observation from "The Federalist" (he wrote 29 of the 77 essays urging the adoption of the new government) reads:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

In a letter to William Bradford, Madison speaks of his lifelong concern for religious liberty:

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect."

The great treasure documents include "A Declaration of Rights," a broadside with Madison's own notes for proposed amendments, dated in Williamsburg, May 16-June 29, 1776, and a working draft of the Constitution, with manuscript notes in Madison's own handwriting.

Equally interesting are the more personal writings: a letter to Madison by Jefferson in Paris, 1789, and one in return to Jefferson by Madison. Madison told Jefferson to buy him as many books as he could. After Dolley Madison's death, his library of 700 or 800 volumes was sold.

Conover Hunt Jones and Kym S. Rice also were curators of "Dolley and the Great Little Madison" some years ago at the Octagon, a building in which the Madisons stayed for a time after the White House burned.

In this exhibit, the curators have done as much for the great little man himself.