Category Archives: American Art

Last Chance! Peacock Room Shutters Open Today

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Today from 12–5:30 pm, take advantage of the last opportunity until 2017 to view the Peacock Room with its shutters open. Beginning January 4, 2016, the Freer Gallery will close for renovations so that we may better serve our visitors.

We’ve been opening the shutters each month to highlight the chromatic complexity of the Peacock Room’s decoration. Once light pours in, the colors become richer and the gold shines. The effect makes you appreciate the work’s full title, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. It is a dazzling moment that feels operatic in its power. No wonder Whistler often chose to title his works with musical references. Viewing the Peacock Room in natural light is a true symphony for the eyes. And, with conservation in mind, a special filtering film has been applied to the windows to preserve the iconic room and protect the contents from fading.

Remember: While the Freer is closed, you can still see the Peacock Room’s contemporary counterpart Filthy Lucre in the Sackler, which remains open. Plus, you can visit Whistler’s masterpiece anytime via our free Peacock Room app.

Friday Fave: The Weavers

The Weavers, John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1912, F1913.59a-c, Gift of Charles Lang Freer

The Weavers; John Singer Sargent (1856-1925); United States, 1912; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.59a-c

The Weavers by John Singer Sargent is something of an anomaly in our collection of American painting. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer generally favored evocative, lyrical images rendered in a softly painted style: Thomas Dewing’s languorous women, Dwight Tryon’s atmospheric landscapes, and, above all, James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, whose evanescent surfaces were, as one contemporary noted, “like breath on glass.” There is nothing breathy about The Weavers. A critic who saw the picture at the 1913 Royal Academy exhibition in London called it “a pictorial exclamation.” It is painted with Sargent’s characteristic bravura brushwork—bold, liquid strokes that almost magically coalesce into the interior of a textile factory that Sargent must have seen during his 1912 sojourn in the Spanish city of Granada.

If the style of The Weavers makes it stand apart from most of the Freer’s American art, the subject makes it distinctive within Sargent’s oeuvre. What is unusual—and what I especially love about this picture—is that the workers it depicts are worlds away from the artist’s customary subjects: rich patrons who counted on Sargent to capture their best likenesses. Instead, Sargent focuses his attention and formidable talent on a group of anonymous laborers. They occupy a dark, crowded space punctuated by intense areas of sunlight so bright they make you want to squint. This is a totally physical picture, from the subject matter to the quality of the paint to the perceptual response it elicits.

The Weavers has not been on view since 1998. Along with other little-seen works of American art, it will come out of storage in 2017, when we celebrate the reopening of the Freer after its renovation. If you’re a fan of Sargent’s work, see his painting Breakfast in the Loggia in the Freer before the building closes on Monday, January 4, 2016.

Enter the Peacock Room with Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Check your mailbox! The New York Times is sending more than one million Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers over the next few days. Currently, the Freer|Sackler is the only Smithsonian museum with Cardboard content. You can experience James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room in 360° and be transported to what was once an opulent dining room in London, then a private exhibition space in Detroit, and now a treasure of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Just download the Freer|Sackler app for your Android device, snap your phone into a Cardboard viewer, and press play. (iPhone users: stay tuned! We’ll have some good news for you shortly.) With this DIY take on a stereoscope, you’ll be able to experience storytelling in vivid detail.

With the Freer closing its doors on January 4, 2016, only two months remain to see the iconic Peacock Room in person. While you’re here, be sure to visit the Sackler installation Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre for a contemporary take on the room and its many layers of paint, gilding, and intrigue.

If you’re not expecting a Cardboard viewer from the Times, you can easily find one to purchase online or even make your own. In the meantime, explore the museum on Google Art Project.

Teen Artist Residency: Peacock Printmaking Project

Clockwise from top left: Teen artists in "Filthy Lucre," inspired by Whistler’s peacock feather pattern, assembled in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, and with printmaker Dennis O’Neil.

Clockwise from top left: Teen artists in “Filthy Lucre,” inspired by Whistler’s peacock feather pattern, assembled in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, and with printmaker Dennis O’Neil.

Local teens have turned the conflicts in their lives into James McNeill Whistler-inspired art. This summer, the Freer|Sackler partnered with ArtReach@THEARC to host a three-week artist residency for DC teenagers with internationally recognized printmaker Dennis O’Neil. The group spent a day visiting the museums, during which they toured Whistler’s famed Peacock Room and the contemporary installation Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre with Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art. Inspired by their experiences, the young artists then investigated the emotional tension behind Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room, Whistler’s mural of fighting peacocks that marked his feud—and subsequent break—with longtime patron Frederick Leyland. Working with graduate-student mentors from George Washington University, the teen artists drew parallels to their own lives and depicted personal stories of conflict on nineteen vase-shaped prints, which were affixed to a Peacock Room-esque screen.

The Peacock Printmaking Project being prepped to go on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The Peacock Printmaking Project being prepped to go on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“I thought many of the vases were extremely creative. I enjoyed the give and take between the students and the George Washington interns,” said O’Neil at the project’s opening reception. The Peacock Printmaking Project remains on view outside the ImaginAsia classroom in the Sackler until January 2016.

Interested in upcoming teen programs at the Galleries? Register for this month’s two-session audio-recording workshop, co-hosted by the Hirshhorn’s ArtLAB+, to explore artworks in Peacock Room REMIX. You also might be a great fit for the Freer|Sackler Teen Council, a group of ten creative and dedicated high school students who help make the museums more welcoming and engaging for young people. The Teen Council plans and hosts events that bring DC-area teens to the museums to hang out, make and design art, and have unique and exciting experiences. Take a look at the schedule, commitment, and benefits associated with participating in the Teen Council. If you think you would be a great fit, apply online by November 1, 2015, to join.

Friday Fave: Sunrise

Sunrise; Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925); United States, 1915; pastel on cardboard; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; F1915.129a–b

Sunrise; Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925); United States, 1915; pastel on cardboard; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; F1915.129a–b

On my first day as an intern in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, I was thumbing through the guidebook A Perfect Harmony: The American Collection in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. I found myself captivated by a series titled Sea Moods by Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925), a painter and friend of museum founder Charles Lang Freer. My favorite of Tryon’s “moods,” created in 1915 during a summer fishing expedition to Ogunquit, Maine, is Sunrise. Something in the image reminded me of my home back in California. I became mesmerized by the light lavenders, soft yellows, and textured blues. The overall surface of the painting glistens, reiterating the rhythmic movement and shimmer of the waves. The seemingly spontaneous effect contrasts Tryon’s laborious process of layering pastel twenty to thirty times.

An avid outdoorsman, Tryon often spent his summers on the coast of Maine, finding inspiration from the sea. It wasn’t until the winter months that Tryon retreated into his studio, where he would eventually create nineteen of these seaside pastels from memory. Describing the time between inspiration and execution, Tryon wrote that his pastels “went through the alembic of my mind before they were writ onto canvas.” I became fascinated by his artistic process of allowing the experience of a specific moment to evolve over time into a more evocative and spiritual image. The opalescent, layered pastels on rough brown paper are literally palpable: Sunrise has a pulse, making the image deeply personal. Because of the way Tryon layered the pastel, applying coats of fixative between each, the final image is a type of palimpsest, or record of time passing.

The morning before I left for DC, I woke early to watch the full moon set over the horizon. Viewing Sunrise transported me back to that peaceful morning of swimming in the ocean, watching the moon, and observing the sun as it began to rise. Sunrise is imbued with a subtle vitality that inspired an affectionate remembrance of home.

Friday Fave: Filthy Lucre

Darren Waterston installing "Filthy Lucre" in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Darren Waterston installing “Filthy Lucre” in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

My interest in American art is linked to my love of nineteenth-century American literature. Having graduated with a degree in English from Colby College in the spring, I couldn’t wait to explore the Freer’s American art collection and compare the paintings to the nineteenth-century texts I had studied at school. Most importantly, I was looking forward to stepping inside the Peacock Room, the beautiful interior painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1876–77. On the first day of my internship, however, I walked through the Sackler Gallery and entered the exhibition Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. The installation reimagines Whistler’s room in a state of decay. I’ve never had much interest in exploring contemporary art, finding more relish in investigating the past than the present. In Waterston’s room, however, I was inspired to reconsider both Whistler’s work and my own thoughts on art and literature.

Filthy Lucre—the centerpiece of Peacock Room REMIX—is inspired by and reconsiders Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, but visitors won’t find harmony in Waterston’s installation. Instead, viewers are confronted with a distorted reflection of Whistler’s iconic room. The slanting shelves, low ceilings, and dilapidated elements made me feel as if the room was closing in around me. The longer I stood in Filthy Lucre, the more susceptible I became to its eerie influence. The walls and the pottery bleed paint, while gold seeps from the wall to the floor. The dim lighting and the red illumination behind the shutters create a warped vision. Deep, booming sounds radiate from different corners of the room, akin to a heartbeat. Voices whisper, as if the room itself is attempting to speak but isn’t loud enough to be fully understood.

The longer I stood in the room, the more alive it seemed to me. This almost supernatural, penetrating quality reminded me of the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. I found myself drawing comparisons between the Filthy Lucre soundscape and the lugubrious sounds of Poe’s lyrical poetry. Additionally, the aspect of life within the room, the animation of the inanimate and giving voice to art, seemed very similar to Poe’s most famous dark stories. When I walked away from Filthy Lucre, I was somber, moved, and inspired to reconsider nineteenth-century art and literature, viewing them now through a contemporary lens.

Beyond the Instagram Filter

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Most of us are familiar with the transformational power of Instagram filters such as Amaro and Earlybird, and the magic they can work for our amateur iPhone photography. But what can we learn in an art historical context by making use of traditional camera filters? Multispectral imaging uses cameras that can “see” into the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing us to photograph features of artworks that are not visible to the naked eye. At the Freer|Sackler, I used the conservation department’s Nikon D100 camera and Kodak Wratten gelatin filters to create UVIR photographs of the museum’s entire collection of watercolors by James McNeill Whistler. These photographs will be used as part of a larger project called Whistler and Watercolor, a collaborative, technical art history research project by an F|S conservator, curator, and conservation scientist.

While most of Whistler’s oeuvre has had the benefit of in-depth study, the watercolors have been waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Whistler created more than three hundred watercolors in his lifetime, most of which were executed in the 1880s, during the height of his fame. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired fifty-two of them. Whistler and Watercolor will provide Whistler scholars and enthusiasts with a technical description of the artist’s working methods in watercolor. Were his materials and techniques similar or significantly different from the way he used other mediums? How do they compare to watercolors by other artists of the time period? Did he follow the methods taught in watercolor manuals and how-to books of the late nineteenth century or was he more innovative and experimental?

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Multispectral imaging using traditional photographic filters can help us answer some of these questions. Look at the three images above for an example of a reconstructed nineteenth-century palette (like Whistler’s) photographed normally and then using two gelatin filters with different light sources. Certain pigments exhibit characteristic behaviors in reflected infrared (IR) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV) that allow us to identify them. Cobalt-containing pigments, such as cerulean blue or cobalt green, become transparent and disappear completely in reflected infrared (at approx. 850 nm). With ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence, red madder lake typically emits a red fluorescent “glow” due to the presence of a compound called purpurin. By using photographic filters, as well as a variety of other techniques to back up these visual observations, it will be possible to reconstruct Whistler’s use of watercolor pigments in the late nineteenth century to aid future research and study.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

Peacock Room REMIX: Break it Down

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation "Filthy Lucre," 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

Photo by John Tsantes of Darren Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre,” 2013–14, created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts.

If you ride Metro to work, your morning commute may have been punctuated by disturbing images of a ransacked Peacock Room. Freer not! No art was destroyed in making Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition centered on Filthy Lucre, contemporary artist Darren Waterston’s imaginative reenvisioning of the iconic interior. It’s perhaps a tribute to Waterston’s artistry that we’ve worried a few people who think we’ve gone all rock star on the Peacock Room and deliberately destroyed its contents. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the Smithsonian, people! The room is one of our treasures.

“I wanted to create my piece as a great homage, a contemporary artist’s response to Whistler,” Waterston has said. “At the same time I wanted to interrogate the ideas, aesthetics, and intentions behind the original Peacock Room.”

The Peacock Room was famously decorated by James McNeill Whistler for his friend and erstwhile patron, Frederick Leyland. Leyland didn’t like the surprise home makeover, causing a painful, permanent rupture between the two men. Though Whistler had made good on his promise of a “gorgeous surprise,” transforming the room with brilliant hues of blue, green, and gold, Leyland felt that Whistler went too far; he refused to pay the artist his full fee. Whistler, shocked and insulted, took revenge by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the room’s south wall to represent the artist and patron. He titled this bit of retribution Art and Money. The break between Whistler and Leyland inspired Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, as did the story behind Whistler’s painting The Gold Scab: An Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), currently on loan to the Sackler from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Why “Frilthy”? In one of his last letters to Leyland, Whistler wrote, “Whom the gods intend to be ridiculous, they furnish with a frill.” In addition to poking fun at Leyland’s dress, the term refers to the biblical phrase “filthy lucre” as well as to Leyland’s initials, FL. In The Gold Scab, Whistler depicts Leyland, an amateur pianist, as a hideous miser—half human, half peacock—perched uncomfortably on the roof of the White House, the studio-residence that Whistler lost as a result of his mounting debts.

Created in London, the Peacock Room eventually was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home before he willed his collection to the United States and the museum that would bear his name. In Detroit, Freer used the Peacock Room as a staging area to make connections between world cultures. It was a place of visual harmony. In deconstructing the Peacock Room, Darren Waterston has created a staged area of deliberate destruction to make connections between a centuries-old gilded age and our own world—as he says, “[altering] the appearance of visual harmony by disfiguring it.” Waterston’s breakages are rife with symbolism: The dramatic tensions between art, money, and aesthetics are still relevant to our culture today. With the REMIX, we have a clearer lens into that earlier world and, consequently, our own.

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre is on view to January 2, 2017.

Friday Fave: “Sunrise: April”

"Sunrise: April"; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

“Sunrise: April”; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b

In the summer of 2009, I moved to Washington with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in illustration and, maybe not surprisingly, spent most days stocking the milk fridge at a Trader Joe’s. Squatting inside the bluish hull of the icebox, my skin chilled to a uniform 35 degrees by the roaring fan, I could peer out from behind the glass doors and watch the vague, broken outline of shoppers moving between the milk cartons. Of course, they could see me, too, but I felt the same sense of hidden stillness in the back of that fridge as I felt perched in the high branches of a pine tree as a kid, staring intently but aimlessly at the people below. There’s a sort of focused calm to looking around from a solitary vantage, a feeling of everything and nothing, which perfectly suits the naïve self-absorption of a child and the melodramatic career turmoil of a recent college graduate.

On days off, I would ride out to the National Mall to visit the art museums. It felt good to keep my head in the game: To keep thinking about art, you have to keep looking. Invariably, I would go to the National Gallery for Turner, Cézanne, and Rothko, or wind my way around the Hirshhorn looking for the de Koonings. (Sometimes I think that the answers to all of life’s problems lie hidden in a great painting, and that I’m just not looking hard enough.)

One morning, I came out of the Metro and walked up the steps of the Freer. It was new to me, for I had yet to be keyed in to the secret wonder of its American art collection. The Whistler galleries were, of course, beautiful, and I figured that they were a serendipitous and worthy discovery to sate me of my painterly cravings.

But then I entered a different gallery, anchored by a gorgeous double-panel painting by Thomas Dewing. I turned to face the opposite wall and was struck silent by a canvas that seemed entirely transparent. It was simple and reductive, stripped down to the barest mechanisms of composition and value. It had almost no shape, and the more I looked, the more it seemed to lack even color. It was a landscape painting, I supposed, with a broadly impressionistic sense of atmosphere, but it employed none of the flourish or willful distortion that I’d known from the work of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, or Van Gogh.

I had never seen a painting like this. There was no barn silhouetted against the horizon, no fence, no nameless farmhand or rusted chisel plow punctuating the stillness. Just a row of trees on the cusp of budding, with the sun barely peeking over the distant horizon.

The painting enveloped me completely. It captured that rare feeling of a perfect moment in nature, a hazy awe that is impossible to fully absorb. It was that same feeling I had in the milk fridge and the pine tree, of everything and nothing, hidden peacefully within my world while staring back into it without reason or expectation.

Without having ever thought about it, I’d never imagined that feeling could be captured. I still can’t understand how it was painted. The label read, “Dwight Tryon. Sunrise: April.” I had to leave, for I had stopped seeing.

Four years later, I got to see the painting again. This time, I was working at the Freer for the curator of American art. Sunrise: April was in collections storage. I cannot wait until it is brought out again.

Friday Fave: Sunflower Andirons

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

These metal andirons were created by the Peacock Room’s original architect, Thomas Jeckyll, to complement the room’s beautiful design—a form of architectural jewelry, if you will. Although they’re not currently on view, the andirons remind me of the delightfully quirky humanity that often hides behind great masterpieces.

Decorated by American ex-pat artist James McNeill Whistler, the Peacock Room is a magnum opus: a breathtaking combination of artistic genius, technical mastery, and hubris. Visitors step inside and gasp. Crowds gather when the shutters open every third Thursday of the month. It is, without doubt, the most recognizable, memorable, and photographed single installation in the Freer|Sackler.

With its imposing importance, it’s easy to forget that the room was built to be a functional dining room—with, of course, a functioning fireplace. It was built for shipping magnate Frederick Leyland and his family’s London home. I like to imagine the meals and conversations held in this space, the fires that were poked at day in and day out. The Leylands must have fretted over details, planned menus, and proudly showed off their matching andirons to admiring guests.

It is also deeply human. The drama of the room’s decoration is arguably trumped by the stories of the people involved—the patron, Leyland; the architect, Jeckyll; the collector, Freer; and of course, the artist, Whistler. The andirons were commissioned by Leyland, a testament to his impressive attention to appearances, and acquired by Freer, a testament to Freer’s no less impressive quest to assemble Whistler’s complete oeuvre, down to the smallest detail.

The Peacock Room’s most dramatic personal histories take center stage with the incredible reimagining that opens May 16, Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. You won’t want to miss it! In the meantime, enjoy the details.