Tag Archives: Peacock Room

Princess: Unleashed

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

For the first time since 1904, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain has left the Peacock Room. James McNeill Whistler’s painting of Anglo-Greek beauty Christina Spartali dressed in a Japanese kimono has hung over the mantelpiece in the Peacock Room for more than a century. Now it is on display in the Sackler as part of the exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art.

The painting has presided over the Peacock Room for so long that it may come as a surprise to learn it was not originally a site-specific work. It was an exhibition picture, painted in 1864 and displayed at the Paris Salon the following year. Critics at the time generally liked the work, but they described it as a “pastiche chinoise” since parts of it seemed to imitate the decorations found on Chinese porcelain.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland acquired the painting around 1872. When he moved to a new home in 1875, he hung it over the mantel in the dining room, which had been redecorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll to showcase Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese pots. Leyland asked Whistler to offer suggestions about the color scheme of the woodwork. As the artist began to make a few modest changes, he realized Jeckyll’s designs clashed with his princess. Whistler was soon carried away with covering the walls, shutters, and ceiling with peacock motifs. The result was the beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—and the end of his friendship with Leyland.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

After Leyland died in 1892, his art collections were sold at auction. William Burrell, a collector from Glasgow, Scotland, bought La Princesse at that time. He sold it to Charles Lang Freer in 1903, shortly after Whistler’s death. The following year, Freer loaned the painting to Whistler’s memorial retrospective held in Boston, where the princess hung in a place of honor at the end of a long gallery. Later that spring Freer acquired the entire Peacock Room from Blanche Watney, who had purchased Leyland’s house, and he shipped the room to his own residence in Detroit in the summer of 1904. He once again hung La Princesse over the mantelpiece, where it remained when the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920.

While the Freer Gallery is temporarily closed for renovation, La Princesse is liberated from her high perch. Enjoy this opportunity to take a closeup look at Whistler’s work before the princess once again returns to her lofty position, perhaps to gaze down on us for another hundred years.

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.

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: 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.

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.

You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.

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.