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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whistler's Amazing Peacock Room, Freer Gallery


I had the opportunity to visit the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. this week.  This museum, on the National Mall, is named after Charles Lang Freer who donated his extensive collection of art, including much ancient Asian art, to the Smithsonian in the early 20th century.  In one room of the Freer Gallery is The Peacock Room, which was moved intact from Freer's home in Detroit after his death in 1919.

The story of the Peacock Room is an over-the-top cautionary tale of the perils of contracting with artists.  The dining room was originally constructed by architect Thomas Jeckyll for the shipping magnate (and Pre-Raphaelite patron) Frederick Leyland; it included an elaborate lattice of shelves to display the owner's porcelain and the walls were hung with gilded leather.  Leyland had also commissioned James McNeill Whistler to paint the portrait over the fireplace, "The Princess From the Land of Porcelain" (first pic).  The room was nearly done when Jeckyll asked Whistler for advice on the color of the shutters (see below).  From this point, and with Leyland's approval (who shortly after departed on business), a series a small color adjustments were made to the room by Whistler.

But then Whistler stayed on, becoming increasingly enamored of the alterations he was making to the room (and possibly also of Leyland's wife), including gilding the ceiling and shelving, painting the leather prussian blue, and painting dramatic gold peacocks on the shutters.   Whistler wrote to Leyland saying that the dining room was "really alive with beauty — brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree," and that the changes he had made were past imagining. "I assure you," he said, "you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!" 

When Leyland got the bill for the "expanded" project he did not authorize, he refused to pay and the two got involved in a bitter lawsuit (is there any other kind?).  Whistler's revenge was his final modification to the room, two large peacocks fighting over a pile of silver at the end of room (pic above).  He called the mural "Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room." 

Years later, after Leyland's death, Freer, a long-time patron of Whistler, purchased the room (in 1904) and installed it in an addition on his house in the U.S.   The room is considered by many to be Whistler's greatest creation.