April 26, 2011
When a British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland asked the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler to redecorate his dining room in 1876 and 1877, a dispute arose between the artist and his patron. Whistler had promised “minor alterations” but lavishly painted the room with plumed peacocks and feather patterns on the ceiling and shutters. Leyland refused to the pay the artist his fee. Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, later bought the room and shipped it to his mansion in Detroit, before donating it to the Smithsonian.
The Freer Gallery has now restored the famous Peacock Room to its 1908 glory. “The Peacock Room Comes to America,” the first special exhibition in the room since 1993, opened April 9. The Freer’s Curator of American Art Lee Glazer discusses the lavish room and the artist who created it.
Whistler was inspired by images of peacocks in Japanese art, and they also appealed to him as emblems of pure beauty.
Can you see evidence in the room of Whistler’s anger?
The mural over the sideboard, pointedly titled “Art and Money, or, the story of the room,” depicts Whistler’s quarrel with Leyland over the price of the room. Whistler is the poor peacock on the left, the silver crest feather a reference to the artist’s famous white forelock; the bird on the right, with coins around his feet and embellishing his breast, represents Leyland. If you know the references, it’s pretty nasty. But the evidence is all in the anecdote. The image itself fits harmoniously enough into the overall blue and gold decoration of rest of the room.
What did Freer see in this room? It must have cost him dearly to have it shipped from London?
Freer was actually ambivalent about the Peacock Room. He favored artistic subtlety, and the Peacock Room seemed embarrassingly gorgeous. But he bought it, as he said, “out of a sense of duty” to his friend Whistler. Once he reassembled the room in Detroit and filled it with his own collections of Asian pottery, however, he made his peace with it.
Why did you decide to take out the blue and white porcelain and reinstall it with Freer’s rough-textured, iridescent stoneware and pottery?
The Peacock Room has had this incredibly dynamic, cosmopolitan history, but visitors to the museum have experienced it as a static icon. By changing the pots, we’ve made it possible for people to tap into a lesser-known chapter in the room’s history and given it a very different look and feel that will encourage a new appreciation of the room’s infinite variety—of surface, color, pattern and light.
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