The most recognizable painting by artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler might lead you to believe he was as Puritan as his upbringing. The fact he could render such a realistic homage to piety in Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother)—better known as Whistler’s Mother—does seem to further the illusion that he was bleak to the battlements of his being, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth and I offer the Peacock Room as proof. He fancied himself a dandy, often dressing the part, and art historians contend that he was instrumental in freeing painting from decades of unquestioned predictability.
James Whistler’s Artistic Legacy
Rather than hinting at his own personality, Whistler’s Mother expresses the character of the staid matriarch of the clan. Her severe dress and somber surroundings are not a surprise given she maintained such an atmosphere of primness in their New England household she could have been Calvinist to the core had her devoutness not already been claimed by the Church of England. I’ll leave her influence for another post; my aim today is to concentrate on a significant contribution James Whistler made to design, the decorative example I’m presenting illustrating a penchant the painter showed for flamboyance.
The aesthetic vibrancy of the particular room I’m writing about dovetails nicely with the personae Whistler embraced when he was taking London’s art scene in stride and studying alongside painters like Monet and Renoir in Parisian ateliers—his straitlaced upbringing firmly in his rearview mirror.
The masterpiece of decorative mural art, known formally as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, is one of the most capricious interior design projects I’ve ever seen. I visited it during a literary design adventure to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. last week, and it was truly worth the effort. Originally designed as a dining room for British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland to prominently display his blue-and-white Chinese porcelains in his London home, the chamber is small in size but enormous in its seductive powers.
James Whistler’s Decorative Legacy
Leyland hired architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the room in 1876 and within a year the decoration of the space would turn into a caper with wild plot twists that include Whistler commandeering the project. Whistler wasn’t even involved in the undertaking at he onset—only his painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelain (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain) had a presence in the décor, as Leyland had purchased it from the artist and hung it in a place of honor above the fireplace before the transformation of the space began
Whistler was completing a smaller project in Leyland’s entrance hall while the architect went about creating his neo-rococo investigation of chinoiserie, and at some point Jeckyll asked his advice about a color scheme for the shutters and doors. As the project was nearing completion, the architect had a mental and physical meltdown, and Whistler couldn’t resist stepping in but only lightly at first.
Initially, he simply added a wave pattern to the cornice and woodwork—the undulate gold ornamentation inspired by the leaded glass panel on the pantry door—and traces of yellow on the walls so the motifs on the antique leather wall hangings cladding them didn’t clash with the delicacy of the tones in his painting.
Leyland approved these changes and left town for an extended period of time, believing the project was essentially finished. That’s when Whistler gave his imagination free rein and his headlong romp into design nirvana continued unimpeded into the following year. In Whistler’s own words, he admitted he just painted on and on “without design or sketch,” and the decoration grew as he did.
He added, “And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection―putting in every touch with such freedom―that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.”
He also covered the ceiling with Dutch metal (imitation gold leaf), festooning the interiors of the irregular lozenges with lush depictions of peacock feathers. He gilded the walnut shelving Jeckyll had designed, and embellished all four shutters with statuesque peacocks in resplendent gold.
The direction he took resulted in a significant uptick in expenses, of course, and the situation was not to Leyland’s liking since he had approved neither the changes nor the additional expenditures. You can pretty much guess what happened next: he fired the painter without paying him. As Leyland continued to withhold the funds, eventually settling with the artist for a bit less than half of what he billed him, Whistler was determined to get even. If he couldn’t trump Leyland financially, he knew he could best him by ridiculing him conceptually.
Since the Leyland family resided in Liverpool, they didn’t often trek to their home in London out of season so the artist was able to gain entry after the project had fizzled. He actually stayed long enough to paint a very intricate pièce de résistance—a mural covering the wall opposite his portrait that holds symbology in every detail. Ornamenting the head of the peacock he created to represent himself is a silver feather that alludes to a white shock of hair for which Whistler was known. This affronted peacock with his big, innocent eye has a pert “Who, me?” attitude, while Leyland’s antagonistic bird is arrogant, its eyes squinty in rage and its expression malicious.
Also symbolic in the depiction of the wealthy patron is a progression of spiked feathers along his neck, representing the high, gathered collars Leyland wore; and coins scattered around its feet, a reference to the patron’s wealth and stinginess. It was so amusing to see them in all their finery, facing off over the artist’s desire to create something expressive and the patron’s refusal to fund what he deemed indulgent.
Snippets of the skirmish between Whistler and Leyland can be found in Whistler’s letters, many of which the University of Glasgow has digitized and placed online. I was so happy to come across this treasure trove of grandiloquence because it illuminates how enormous Whistler’s ego was. We can thank this character trait that kept him from ever backing down for the Peacock Room, one of the most remarkable examples of a highly stylized interior executed by an artist that I’ve ever seen (with a fine architect’s “bones” as a foundation for it, of course).
The entire room sans Leyland’s blue-and-white porcelain was shipped to America in 1904 when collector Charles Lang Freer purchased it for his Detroit mansion in order to showcase his more eclectic collection of vessels. Freer had acquired artifacts from places as stylistically diverse as Egypt, Iran, Japan, China, and Korea, and he saw the Peacock Room as the perfect backdrop for them. Letters between Whistler and Freer are also on the Glasgow university’s site; theirs a much more amicable connection than the one Whistler had with Leyland. The vessels displayed within the space at Freer’s eponymous museum recreate the room in its Detroit iteration, though the backdrop remains much the same as it was in Kensington when Whistler last saw it in 1877.
I heartily recommend trekking to DC to experience it if you enjoy encountering physical manifestations of great artistic vision, as the meticulousness with which this design artifact has been restored puts it at the top of my list of exquisite things I’ve seen during two decades as a design writer. And I do recommend viewing it during one of the afternoons when the shutters are opened. This takes place on the third Thursday of each month, the artful coverings folded away to revel the windows at around noon and remaining open until 5:30 p.m.
Seeing the space in natural light changes the room remarkably: the tones of the wall colors are, pun intended, daylight and dark with the shutters opened (above) versus closed (below). I would have been convinced the entire room was a deep green and gold until sunlight revealed it also held, as Whistler’s name suggests, shades of blue. Future dates for the shutters to open are listed in my footnotes below with a link to the museum’s events page dedicated to the Peacock Room.
Having researched Whistler’s history at length before I went provided me with a more dramatic experience, a backstory I’m sharing with readers in the hopes it will illuminate someone else’s visit if they find their way to this article first. Knowing that Whistler would go so far as to paint the intricate peacocks to represent the two of them at odds with each other truly fascinated me as I stood there studying the details.
I was only a tad bit sad that his exuberance had covered over historical Cuir de Cordoue leather wall hangings that Jeckyll had placed in the room, the antique artifacts said to have been among the offerings in Catherine of Aragon’s dowry, the Tudor roses symbolizing her marriage to Henry VIII. Even the loss of such a treasure couldn’t dampen the captivating power of the story, which concludes with Whistler making sure Leyland wouldn’t miss his insult by naming the mural Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room.
This is but one of the anecdotes that make the fact Whistler titled his only book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies ironic, as his brand of making enemies was anything but subtle! Case in point is the fact he sued the Titan of taste during his time, John Ruskin, over dismissive remarks the art critic made about his nocturns.
Chinoiserie’s Original Trend
I left the Peacock Room feeling bathed in the great glow of history, a capricious sense of joy, to quote Whistler from his famous address “Ten O’Clock.” And I have to say I was glad the artist had commandeered the design of the room because I don’t believe we would have access to as luxurious an artifact had Jeckyll’s design not been overrun by the painter’s perspective.
What initially led me down the path toward this literary design adventure are two circumstances coalescing several months ago: I noticed a major resurgence of chinoiserie as a trend when I was attending design shows, while I was also reading Robert M. Crunden’s American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism 1885-1917. The author opens the book with a fascinating encapsulation of Whistler’s life and an examination of his influence. And though he doesn’t mention the Peacock Room, it was his recounting of how chinoiserie first catapulted onto the design scene during Victorian times that gave me the idea to visit the Freer.
The initial trend had everything to do with artists like Whistler, the painter’s first immersion in the “exotic” style coming about in Paris during his studies at Charles Gleyre’s atelier. As with the other teachers of the time, Gleyre believed that only Greek and Roman scenes, religious subjects and the nude figure were held in higher esteem than compositions inspired by the Orient.
“Although they were capable of ransacking the Bible or Mythology for new subject matter,” Crunden explained, “what really stimulated both Whistler and his new friends was the extraordinary vogue for anything Oriental that developed both in France and England in the 1860s. Commodore Matthew Perry and the Emperor of Japan had signed their treaty in 1854, and Japanese art soon spread into the homes and minds of those who wished to escape from convention.”
As always, commerce got into the game, and shopkeepers furthered the popularity of exotic decorative wares. Whistler and a host of other up-and-coming artists were frequenters of Farmer & Roger’s Oriental Warehouse in London, where they would buy home wares and other accouterments to use as objects in or inspirations for motifs in their paintings. Crunden follows the trend into other cities, such as Paris, where La Porte Chinoise, then described as “an exotic junkshop,” was all the rage.
I think it’s intriguing to be contemplating this centuries-old trend while we are clearly seeing a strong uptick in the popularity of chinoiserie, don’t you? Wouldn’t it be a great DesignSalon exploration to try and decipher how many times chinoiserie has trended over the past 155 years since its first surge onto the design scene? I’m adding this to the geeky list of curiosities I’d like to explore further. Stay tuned!
The Peacock Room Footnotes
If you would like to see the Peacock Room in natural light for yourself, the future 2015 dates the shutters open are August 20, September 17, October 11, November 19 and December 17. In the event the most you can achieve is to visit as an “armchair traveler,” there is the Peacock Room app on iTunes, which is as true to life as I’ve ever seen an app representing a design installation be.
If you’d like to read more about the Peacock Room in all three of its iterations, Wayne State University in Detroit has a section on its website devoted to the room’s journey across an ocean and a portion our continent.
Did you know that two Boston restorers, John and Richard Finlayson, carried out the extensive renovation of the Peacock Room at the Freer between 1947 and 1950?
Text of The Peacock Room à la Whistler © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
All images that are not designated © Saxon Henry are courtesy the Freer Gallery of Art or Wayne State University.
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