Category Archives: American Art

A Painting That Doesn’t Exist

Three Female Figures, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–74, pen on brown paper with white heightening, Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 007.2009

Crouching Figure: Study for The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–70, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.139

Draped Figure at a Railing, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–70, black and white crayon on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.130

Draped Female Figure, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.133

Draped Figure Standing, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.136

Woman with Parasol, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.138

Girl with Cherry Blossom, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–78, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Art Gallery, London. Private Collection (on loan to The Courtauld Gallery)

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, James McNeill Whistler, 1879, oil on canvas, frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11

Opening Saturday, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art is an exhibition about a painting that doesn’t exist. The saga began in 1867, when American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) received a commission from a promising new patron, the nouveau riche shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832–1892). Leyland paid the artist to create a “symphony in white,” meant to be the fourth in a series of works in which Whistler experimented with idealized color and form. For ten years, Whistler painted and repainted the painting, which he titled The Three Girls—but he was never satisfied with it. As his mother would explain to Leyland, her son had tried too hard to make the painting “the perfection of art” and was thwarted by his own lofty ideals.

By 1876, Whistler was involved in another large project for Leyland: the redecoration of his patron’s dining room, eventually titled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. If Whistler had completed The Three Girls, it would have hung there, opposite his Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Princess from the Land of Porcelain). But when painter and patron quarreled over the extent of Whistler’s work on the Peacock Room, Whistler destroyed the still-unfinished canvas of The Three Girls. In its place, he painted a mural of two fighting peacocks on the south wall of Leyland’s dining room, later known as “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” As a final affront to Leyland, Whistler repurposed the frame that would have surrounded The Three Girls for another work, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frithly Lucre (The Creditor), which depicts Leyland morphing into a monstrous peacock.

As suggested by Whistler’s sketches and related paintings above, The Three Girls would have been a remarkable work. Fortunately, Whistler left a significant paper trail that allowed our two guest curators, Linda Merrill and Robyn Asleson, to reconstruct the story of the fugitive painting. A rescued fragment of the original canvas, numerous figure studies and preparatory sketches, and the frame that Whistler originally intended to enclose it are among the tantalizing clues that hint at the masterpiece that might have been.

Part of Peacock Room REMIX, The Lost Symphony is the second in a series of exhibitions staged alongside contemporary painter Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation that reimagines Whistler’s Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin, a visualization of the consequences of creative and monetary excess. The works on view in The Lost Symphony allow us to imagine another ending to the story and trace Whistler’s path to aesthetic mastery. Yet, the destruction of the never-completed picture and the afterlife of its repurposed frame also illuminate Whistler’s less-rarified preoccupation with patronage, payment, and professional reputation—the very themes at the heart of Filthy Lucre.

Evolutionary: Whistler, Darwin, and the Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77) triggered a famous clash between the artist and his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the 1870s, though, peacocks were ruffling feathers all over Britain, prompted in part by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pointed out that male birds’ showy plumage makes them easy targets for predators. If evolution by natural selection was valid, how could such a hindrance as a peacock’s train possibly have arisen, much less persisted?

This conundrum troubled Darwin, who confided to a fellow naturalist, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” But by 1871, he had developed a corollary theory of sexual selection, which explained that conspicuous variations in males make them irresistible, improving reproductive rates and offsetting any potential handicap or hazard. The peacock’s train thus evolved from generations of peahens selecting ever-more-gorgeous mates.

Particularly shocking to Victorians was Darwin’s suggestion that the appreciation of beauty is not a uniquely human quality. Debates over the origins and purpose of beauty played out among scientists, artists, and the public throughout the 1870s.

Scholars have long noted Whistler’s multiple sources of inspiration in the Peacock Room: Japanese peacock imagery; Western traditions associating the bird with beauty, luxury, and excess; and the vogue for peacocks and their feathers among Whistler’s fellow avant-garde artists. I believe that we can also look at the room through a Darwinian lens. For instance, the peacocks on the shutters play with and against Darwin’s assertion that male peafowl display their trains to attract females—or fight each other for the same purpose. The birds on the flanking shutters “display” with no hens in sight; in the central shutter, two males sit side by side, contemplating the beauty of the full moon. The shutters celebrate aesthetic delight without any reference to reproduction—indeed, without any possibility of it.

Peacock Room shutters

Peacocks do confront each other on the room’s south wall, in the mural Art and Money, pictured at top. But here, the angry bird (a caricature of Leyland, Whistler’s parsimonious patron) fights for his money, not a mate. The scene becomes ironic only in light of Darwin’s evolutionist explanation for clashes between peacocks. Behavior that Darwin attributed to the reproductive drive is here misdirected toward maintaining personal wealth. The Leyland-peacock hoards rather than disseminates, stifling rather than multiplying the (pro)creative power of art.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

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.