Category Archives: American Art

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a


The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?



Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.


Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.


Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.


Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

Sunflowers in the Peacock Room

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

While the Freer is under renovation, its famed Peacock Room is closed. We continue to explore it in Peacock Room REMIX, however, as well as in our Peacock Room app, the Story of the Beautiful web feature, Google Art Project, and on Bento. Below, Clive Lloyd, a retired professor and blogger in Norwich, England, writes about the contributions of architect Thomas Jeckyll, who designed the original dining room that Whistler made into his masterpiece. 

The Peacock Room may be stunningly beautiful, but my eye is drawn to the contents of the fireplace, where I see the sunflower andirons designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), born just outside my home city of Norwich, England. As a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement and chief designer for a local ironworks, Jeckyll introduced Japanese motifs—such as sunflowers, cherry blossoms, and fan shapes—to their products. Similar to the larger freestanding sunflowers that form the Peacock Room’s andirons, the bloom appears in various forms embossed on domestic fireplaces. Since writing an article for my blog on these sunflowers, several people have contacted me to say they have an Aesthetic fireplace identical to the one I illustrated.

I have been fascinated with this motif since I read about the seventy-two sunflowers forming the railings around a Chinese pagoda that once stood in my local park. Jeckyll designed the pagoda for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; he would later adapt the sunflowers for the Peacock Room’s rather more ostentatious versions. The Norwich Corporation purchased the pagoda in 1880 and placed it in Chapelfield Gardens. The structure suffered damage from bombing during World War II and was dismantled in 1949, but the best of its sunflowers were refurbished and used first as railings, then later as gates, at another Norwich park.

  • Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.
    Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.

During the most recent refurbishment, a local photographer told me she had seen original and replacement sunflowers mixed in boxes in the city council’s works department. Imagine my excitement when I saw a solitary sunflower in the corner of a nearby architectural salvage yard. I realized it must have been a surplus item liberated during the last restoration. I hoped the owner was unaware of exactly what he had, but no luck: He mentioned the magic name of Jeckyll (and the price), and I went home disappointed.

Thanks, Mr. President!

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Happy Presidents Day! Did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental to the Freer|Sackler’s existence? In 1904, Charles Lang Freer offered the United States his collections of Asian and American art and funds for a museum to house them. Because of restrictions he placed on the gift, the Smithsonian hesitated to accept it until President Roosevelt intervened.

To show his appreciation, Freer commissioned artist Gari Melchers to paint this portrait. Roosevelt considered the painting the best that had ever been done of him, and Freer predicted that it would always be considered the one that captured the “dignity, force and character” of the president. “Art is a language,” he wrote to Melchers, “and your portrait will talk to the people through coming centuries.”

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.

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.