Whistler’s Scandalous Peacocks

There is a delicious feeling you get, right before you are about to get something you’ve wanted for years. It’s a mixture of anticipation, hope, despair, and joy. You feel your stomach drop out, your heartbeat quicken, and you feel yourself sucking in your breath. You turn the corner, reach out your hand, open the door – and there it is. In all its splendor. That’s how I felt when I visited the Freer Gallery this past weekend to see the Peacock Room.

I was first introduced to this fabulous Peacock Room by slides projected on the wall of an art history class at community college. One of my favorite teachers was perched, legs crossed, on her stool, holding in one hand the clicker to advance the slides, and in the other hand her coffee mug, which she was never without. Speaking in her thick New York accent, she brought the scandalous tale behind the room to life. When I finally stood in this magnificent room, the story came back to me and I found myself tearing up with joy at fulfillment

Initially, this was the dining room of British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland, and had been designed by the talented architect Thomas Jeckyll to display Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Jeckyll crafted intricate and delicate lattice shelving to display these prized possessions. James McNeill Whistler had painted the room’s only portrait – The Princess from the Land of Porcelain – and was brought in to comment on the color choice of the dining room shutters and doors.

Noting that some red roses conflicted with the colors in his painting, Whistler asked if he could do some minor touch-ups and add a wave pattern to the wainscoting and the cornice. Leyland agreed and left town on business. But Whistler took advantage of Leyland’s absence to completely overhaul the room – without mentioning the scale of the project or the anticipated costs.

Whistler covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf and painted it to resemble the delicate and fine details of a peacock’s feathers. He added gilding to all of Jeckyll’s lattice shelves and then turned his attention to the shutters, painting four golden peacocks with endless tails.

Whistler did write to Leyland, telling him the room was now “really alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree.” And while he encouraged Leyland to delay his return home until the room was completely finished, Whistler threw parties for friends and the press in the room without Leyland’s knowledge.

Leyland was furious when he found out about the remodeling and received Whistler’s bill. There was the inevitable fallout, a lawsuit, and public embarrassment on both sides. Whistler got one last zinger in – on the wall opposite The Princess he depicted two peacocks in confrontation, each with a personal attributes of the offended parties, and with thirty silver pieces strewn at their feet. Whistler never saw the room again.

Charles Lang Freer, the legendary art collector and founder of the Freer Gallery of Art purchased the room and displayed in it his house in Detroit. And after his death, it was moved to DC and is on permanent display at the Freer Gallery next to the Smithsonian Castle.

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2 thoughts on “Whistler’s Scandalous Peacocks

  1. John Haviland says:

    I’m so glad to hear of someone who admires Thomas Jeckyll’s work. I’ve only just discovered the biography of him published by Susan Weber Soros. Jeckyll was commissioned by my Victorian grandfather to build a rectory and school, and remodel his church. We still have some furniture T.J. designed for the rectory.
    I hope to see the Peacock Room one day.

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