Tag Archives: James McNeill Whistler

Join Us for A Tale of Two Cities: London and DC

Chelsea Shops, James McNeill Whistler, 1880s, F1902.149a-b.

This Sunday, take an imaginative stroll through London’s Chelsea neighborhood and learn about the history of DC’s waterfront. Join Maya Foo, curator of Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London, and Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, at 1 pm in the Freer for a tour of the exhibition followed by a 1.5-mile walking tour of the Southwest Waterfront. The free tour will be conducted by Cultural Tourism DC, rain or shine. Register now!

The tour will shed light on the parallels between the Southwest Waterfront, a neighborhood currently in transition, and nineteenth-century Chelsea, a mixed-income area that was affected by the Thames Embankment project. Both neighborhoods are situated along riverfront property, making the land attractive for real estate development.

The Chelsea Embankment, which was part of the larger Thames Embankment project, was a major public engineering feat that resulted in improving river navigation and the city’s sewage system. It also changed the topography of the waterfront by reclaiming acreage from the river where public gardens and pedestrian walkways were later established. Redevelopment also occurred with the demolition of historic buildings, which created space for expensive mansion blocks—apartments that were intended for the upper classes. The poor were displaced and many were forced to live above storefronts in small, cramped apartments with other families.

Old-clothes Shop, No. 2, James McNeill Whistler, etching on paper, F1903.163.

The diminutive works in the exhibition are coded with social issues, including childhood poverty and overcrowding. Whistler, however, did not intend for these works to promote social change. The etchings were not mass produced and were not meant for a wide audience. While documenting the poorer sections of Chelsea, the artist was attracted to the geometric forms created by architectural elements, such as window panes and doorways.

Register now to join us on Sunday!

Peacocks: Four Men in Three Acts

Portrait of Whistler by Thomas Robert Way, lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

The history of the Peacock Room has all the makings of a quirky little opera, including larger-than-life cast members—artist, aesthete, and raconteur James McNeill Whistler; industrialists-turned-art-collectors Charles Lang Freer and Frederick Leyland; and architect Thomas Jeckyll. It’s a story of art, money, taste, and a world with one foot in the West and the other in the East. Our tale begins in London in 1876. Cue the music.

I. 1876
The home of Frederick Leyland
49 Prince’s Gate, London, England

For his new mansion in the fashionable neighborhood of Kensington, Leyland commissions artist James McNeill Whistler to decorate the stairway and asks architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the adjacent dining room, whose walls are covered in antique gilt-leather. Jeckyll obliges by creating a structure of latticed walnut shelving inspired by traditional European porcelain cabinets, thus giving Leyland the means to display his extensive collection of Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain.

When he has a question about what to paint the wooden shutters and doors, Jeckyll calls on Whistler for advice (did I mention Leyland was out of town?). Whistler takes matters into his own hands and begins to paint the dining room in much the same way he does the hall: using imitation gold leaf and a transparent green glaze to emulate the shimmering effects of Japanese lacquer. Shortly after, Jeckyll becomes ill and has to remove himself from the project. (He eventually goes mad and dies in an insane asylum.)

From there, Whistler, whose celebrated painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain is the central focus of the dining room, starts to make other changes. Inspired by the Princess, he brings a Japanese sensibility to the room. We’re in the heart of Victorian England, but in Whistler’s world, we’re entering a doorway to Asia. He even ignites the craze for collecting blue-and-white porcelain that the London tabloids of the day nickname “Chinamania.”

When Leyland returns home and discovers the extensive renovations he did not approve, he refuses to pay Whistler in full for “the gorgeous surprise.” In turn, Whistler immortalizes their feud by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the wall opposite the Princess. He calls it “Art and Money, or the Story of the Room.”

The New York Herald announces the sale of the Peacock Room, Freer|Sackler Archives.

II. 1904
The home of Charles Lang Freer
33 Ferry Avenue, Detroit, Michigan

Two years after his death in 1892, Leyland’s home is sold to Blanche Watney, who is not enamored of the Peacock Room. (Leyland’s large collection of blue-and-white porcelain doesn’t convey in the sale.) She decides to sell it and has it dismantled in 1904. It is moved to the offices of Obach and Company, a London art dealer.

Somewhat ambivalent about the Peacock Room as a work of art, Charles Lang Freer purchases it out of a sense of duty to his old friend Whistler (who had died the previous year) and has an extension built on his Detroit house to accommodate it. In time, Freer makes it his own: the room becomes a staging area where he refines his concept of aesthetic correspondences between American and Asian art. In Michigan he takes pleasure in placing objects from different countries side-by-side and being astonished by the “conversation” that takes place between the pieces. He prefers ceramics with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes, as opposed to the slick blue-and-whites favored by Leyland, and fills the shelves of the Peacock Room with ceramics acquired from China, Japan, Korea, Iran, and Syria.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art during an extensive renovation in 1947.

III. 1923–present
Freer Gallery of Art Washington, DC

Charles Lang Freer bequeaths the Peacock Room and his extensive collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian. The room is dismantled in 1919 and sent to the nation’s capital, where it is permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art. Peacocks are even kept in the museum’s courtyard, a nod to the famous dining room that had been transformed into a timeless work of art.

Over the years the Peacock Room has become the most visited gallery in the museum. People come to see the Princess and the fighting peacocks on the wall opposite her.

Two years ago, technicians from Google photographed the Princess in super-high definition as part of a worldwide museum documentation project. Last year, the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics were temporarily removed, and the ceramics that Freer held in highest esteem were installed in the Peacock Room under the exhibition title The Peacock Room Comes to America. The Princess and the fighting peacocks remain, but the room once again appears the way Charles Lang Freer envisioned it at the turn of the last century, thus adding a new chapter to “the story of the room.”

Curtain.

You can also listen to an audio recording of Four Men and Three Acts, as well as other stories inspired by the Peacock Room, and view a panorama of this famous work. Bring the room home with you by picking up our gorgeous new book, available exclusively in the Sackler shop.

It’s a Book: The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room has had quite a few adventures since artist James McNeill Whistler painted the London dining room in 1876. From its journey to Detroit, where it was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s home in 1904, and then to Washington, DC, where it found its permanent home in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, the room has many stories to tell. The museum’s recent installation The Peacock Room Comes to America shows the Peacock Room as it appeared in 1908, when Freer used it to organize and display more than 250 ceramics that he had collected throughout Asia. As opposed to the blue-and-white wares favored by previous owner Frederick Leyland, Freer preferred to fill the shelves with pots with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes from Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, and Korea.

In honor of the exhibition, we’ve just published The Peacock Room Comes to America, a 64-page paperback with more than 80 color illustrations. Curator of American Art Lee Glazer takes a fresh look at the Peacock Room’s many lives, while focusing on the recent reinstallation. The book also provides insight into Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain, the conservation of the room, and the curator’s perspective on the project. New photography, bolstered by archival images, makes the book a valuable—and handsome—treasure for the Peacock Room’s many fans.

Copies of The Peacock Room Comes to America are available in the Sackler gift shop for $16.

Cooking with Whistler’s Mother

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone, after Whistler’s portrait of his mother, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1898.93

James McNeill Whistler painted Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, a portrait of his mother, Anna, in 1871. James was a devoted son and his mother’s arrival in London in the mid-1860s forced Whistler’s model and mistress, Joanna Heffernan, to seek other quarters.  Mrs. Whistler insisted on living with her “Jemmie” and presiding over his household.

That included the kitchen. Anna Whistler kept a diary and often recorded what she had been cooking. Her recipes, compiled by Professor Margaret MacDonald of the University of Glasgow, are filled with soups, puddings, cakes, and gingerbreads. There’s also a recipe for a peach cordial that calls for 300 peach pits and three quarts brandy and must be left for one month before opening. I’m afraid we’ll have to leave that for another time!

In honor of Anna Whistler and Mother’s Day, and the painting that has perhaps become the quintessential mom image of the art world, we present Mrs. Whistler’s recipe for a dessert called Floating Island:

***

Take a cup of currant jelly, beat the whites of 3 eggs to a froth
add a spoonful of rose water then put it in a dish of cream on which it will float, sweeten your milk or cream to your taste

2 1/2 cups heavy or double cream
1 tablespoon sugar
3 egg whites
1 cup red currant jelly
1 tablespoon rose water

Whip the cream with the sugar until it stands up in peaks. Put it into a large serving dish and smooth the top. Stiffly whip the egg whites and whisk in the red currant jelly 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat in the rose water. Spoon the mixture in 8 peaks on top of the cream. Serve as soon as possible after making or the peaks will gradually subside.
Serves 8

Light, fluffy, pink islands floating on a creamy sea. A delicate combination of flavors which tastes as good as it looks.

* * *

Let us know if you give the recipe a try. If so, post some pictures on our Facebook page. Happy Mother’s Day from Bento, and remember: Mother knows best.

Crying Fowl at the Freer!

A peacock struts his stuff in the Freer Courtyard circa 1923.

With Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Paintings on view in the Freer, we searched around for some more images of birds and found this photograph of a peacock in the Freer courtyard in 1923, at the time of the museum’s opening. Yes, there were live peacocks running around (okay, maybe not running), perhaps an oh-so-subtle reminder for visitors not to miss Whistler’s Peacock Room. At the time, three peacocks were lent to the museum from the National Zoo. They remained in the museum during the warmer months, but were returned to the zoo in the winter.

What do you think? Would you like to see peacocks in the Freer courtyard today?

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Women on the Verge of the Twentieth Century

The Carnation, 1893, Charles Wilmer Dewing, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.33a

In honor of Women’s History Month, we take a look at some of the models who posed for American artist Thomas Dewing.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, women’s lives and their role in society began to evolve. The push for equality and the suffragist movement led to the passage of women’s right to vote in 1920. James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer, and other artists painted idealized portraits of women and often framed them in elaborate golden creations designed by architect Stanford White or, indeed, by Whistler himself. The women depicted were hardly birds in gilded cages: these models and muses had goals and dreams. Many, such as Julia Baird, were “independently minded.” This seemed to have especially pleased Dewing, who requested that all his models “should have brains.” Underneath the veneer of beauty are women on the verge of coming into their own.

These paintings became a favorite of collector Charles Lang Freer. When he began to build a new home in Detroit in 1890, he decorated his residence with many of these works.

Julia “Dudie” Baird was the model for The Carnation, as well as Portrait of a Young Girl. When Freer purchased the above work in 1892, he declared it to be a “corker.”  An actress and inveterate traveler, Baird was a prominent New York model, who posed for Saint Gaudens’ statue of Diana which he placed on top of the Madison Square Garden.

Thomas Dewing painted La Comedienne in 1906. Miss Allen, who posed for the painting, was an amateur actor. In the painting, she holds a script and is seated in front of a box of costumes, which Dewing kept in his studio for his models to pose with. The model for The Piano was Minnie Clark (the original Gibson Girl), whom Dewing later referred to as “My Piano Model.”  Dewing often portrayed young women in a musical setting as illustrative of refinement. The Piano was the first Dewing painting that Charles Lang Freer chose for his collection.

For more on American Art in the Freer|Sackler collections, click here.

Why Bento?

Visitors in the Freer Gallery

A Closer Look at American Art

The Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution boasts some of the world’s foremost examples of Asian art (not to mention the best Whistlers this side of Glasgow). We were trying to think of a way to bring the arts and varied cultures of Asia to our museumgoers who visit us in person, and those who stop by for a virtual browse. We wanted a name that would signify Asia, show that we’re made up of more than one thing, plus become a destination for those who want a filling serving of Asia on their plate … and so, Bento was born. We hope you enjoy the blog and learning about our resources, staff, exhibitions, and special events. And please drop us a note; we’re hoping that Bento can help us break the ice and strike up a conversation!