America’s Most Beautiful Room Reopens With a Party
James McNeill Whistler’s masterpiece was not his mother, and not just a painting—it was a place.
If you asked James McNeill Whistler for help picking the color for dining room shutters, you might return from your trip to the country to find the whole room transformed—your antique gilded leather painted over, your carved walnut shelving gilded, and the room awash in waves and peacocks of gold and Prussian blue. And if you did not appreciate the liberties taken, or its 2,000-guinea fee (something in excess of $1 million in today’s currency), an allegorical painting facing your seat might be added, depicting you as a money-grubber and mocking your taste in fashion.
Such was the drama surrounding the first stage of Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold, the dining room completed for the British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland in 1877, better known as the Peacock Room—now the iconic centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, which have their eagerly anticipated reopening this weekend in Washington, D.C.
The Freer and Sackler Galleries, two separate buildings that make up the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art, will take off with a bang on Saturday night, replete with a light show and Asian night market. The Freer will unveil an impeccable restoration of its early 20th century Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, its central fountain space once again one of the more stunning and peaceful spaces on the busy National Mall. The museum also unveils a look that the staff contend better reflects the vision of its founder, the Michigan industrialist Charles Lang Freer, who amassed the largest collection of works by Whistler.
The neighboring Sackler Gallery will also reopen with three new exhibitions and an installation by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta. The three new exhibitions are Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt (which previously exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum), Encountering Buddha (a lustrous survey of 2,500 years of Buddhist art, including a jaw-dropping red and gold Tibetan Shrine Room from the collection of Alice S. Kandell), and the sound-focused Resound: Bells of Ancient China.
But the chef-d'œuvre of the museum is and always has been the Peacock Room.
The catfight behind one of the greatest installations in history began in 1876 at Leyland’s house at 49 Prince’s Gate in London, just down the street from the V&A Museum today. Whistler, one of the more prominent artists in the Aesthetic movement (“art for art’s sake”) was working on a decorative project in a stair-hall at the mansion, while the interior decorator Thomas Jekyll worked to complete his vision of a Chinese garden pavilion in the room overlooking a private park. The room was to display Leyland’s magnificent collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain, as well as two paintings by Whistler, his already completed Princess From the Land of Porcelain, and a second unfinished painting (intended to be the perfection of his work) showing three girls in white dresses in a garden setting.
Jekyll had all but completed his work, a “bright and jolly space” as the Freer curator Lee Glazer describes it, building out burled walnut shelves, mounting Leyland’s prized antique leather (often mistakenly referred to as belonging to Catherine of Aragon, it is most likely 18th century Dutch), and adding a ribbed ceiling and pendants. According to Glazer, Leyland asked Whistler to advise Jekyll on painting the shutters.
“It was a minor intervention into a room that was almost complete,” she explains.
But once Whistler starts, he cannot stop. Inspired by the wave pattern in the leaded glass on one of the doors, he uses Dutch metal (imitation gold leaf) to cover the woodwork, doors, and double cornice on top of the walls with the pattern, which after oxidizing and being varnished, also look like peacock feathers. Jekyll, who suffered from mental illness, checks into a hospital where he will eventually die. (Some have claimed that Whistler’s “minor intervention” is what drove him over the edge, but Glazer says there is no evidence of this.)
Meanwhile, Whistler tells Leyland, who has departed to Liverpool but is close with the artist, that there is going to be no room in London quite like this when he’s done, but never offers details and Leyland never asks.
When Leyland returns in 1877, he’s in for multiple shocks. First, the bright Chinese garden pavilion has been turned into a dark blue and gold dining room whose full effect can only be reached when all the shutters are closed. Second, Whistler is saying he is now owed 2,000 guineas.
Leyland balks. The room is what “he neither asked for, nor desired” as Glazer puts it. Whistler tries to point out that he’s given Leyland multiple paintings in one space, as the shutters alone contain three monumental works by the artist. Leyland responds that he hates them, and that Whistler can take them and sell them to somebody who would appreciate them.
“That was when Whistler’s feeling of friendship and admiration for Leyland as a person of taste totally crumbled. He thought these shutters were the piece de resistance of the room,” Glazer says. And it’s hard not to see why. The doors are visions in gold, remarkable demonstrations of the fusion of East and West, utterly transforming the room from one filled with decorations to a work of art in and of itself. But Whistler had also crossed the line while working on the rooms by inviting other artists, journalists, and society members to see what he was doing.
Leyland, while a socially ambitious arriviste, was also private, and the privacy of his home had been violated by Whistler. So he and Whistler came to an agreement about the payment, but it is a final insult by Leyland. They agree to half the asked-for price of 2,000 guineas, but instead of paying in guineas, Leyland paid 1,000 pounds. Not only is the amount less than agreed (a guinea is 21 shillings whereas a pound is 20), but gentlemen were paid in guineas, construction workers were paid in pounds.
Whistler, for his part, was not known for being magnanimous. There was still an unfinished spot in the room where his masterpiece of the three girls is supposed to go. He destroyed that painting, and instead exacted his revenge by filling the space with an allegorical portrait of Leyland and himself as fighting peacocks titled Art and Money: The Story of the Room.
Whistler made clear who is who. The artist was marked by a silver crest feather, which was unmistakable as Whistler, who was known for his trademark forelock that he sometimes tied up in a red ribbon. Meanwhile, Leyland’s peacock is quite literally made out of money, as silver and gold coins make up his breast feathers, and the shillings that he owed Whistler are scattered at his feet (and painted in platinum so they will never tarnish).
Whistler then burned any last bridges by adding bristling silver neck feathers, “which,” Glazer clarifies, “was also a really nasty thing to do because Whistler was making a mockery of Leyland’s fashion sense, and the fact that he alway wore this ruffled shirt which was not stylish.”
In fact, when the whole sordid affair ended in a rupture, Whistler dubbed Leyland in a letter “Whom the Gods Intended to Be Ridiculously Furnished with a Frill” while Leyland called him an “artistic Barnum” and threatened to have him horsewhipped if he ever contacted a member of his family again.
After finishing the room in March of 1877, Whistler never sees it again. And, even though his seat at the dining room table faces the allegorical painting, Leyland never takes it down or alters the room. When the magnate dies in 1892, his collection of art is auctioned off. The blue and white porcelain is sold piecemeal by Christie's. The Princess is bought by a Scottish art collector, but eventually lands in the possession of Charles Lang Freer. The house at Prince’s Gate, meanwhile, is bought by a Blanche Watney. While she hates the room, she never gets around to redecorating it. In the year after Whistler’s death in 1903, the value of his art naturally skyrockets. And so, when she realizes that the room is not actually structural, but a room within a room, and therefore can be taken apart and put back together, she puts it up for auction.
Ultimately it is bought by Freer, who already has bought The Princess.
“He didn’t like [the room] either,” Glazer notes. “Nobody liked it on first sight. He just wanted the shutters.” But Freer felt he owed it to Whistler, because just as Leyland was Whistler’s first important patron, Freer was his last. And so the room goes off to his home in Detroit, and he slowly fills it with his own collection of ceramics from all over Asia. Freer was so proud of the way he filled it that he even had it photographed to document it.
Freer always intended for his art collection (containing masterpieces by Whistler, Homer, Sargent, Hassam, and others, as well as significant pieces of Asian art) to be for the public, and after years of wrangling, a museum in his name was opened on the National Mall shortly after he died in 1919. But like previous owners, the museum didn’t quite know what to do with the room, “regarding it as a kind of albatross,” confesses Glazer. It was often left empty, and occasionally filled with different pieces of porcelain.
The Japanese porcelain in the room was removed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to protect it from potentially xenophobic American visitors. However, Glazer had long been captivated by those photographs of how Freer had decorated it, and that is how she has it displayed today.
“It’s a very different effect than the blue and white, which is shiny and slick,” she says. “Whereas this is more harmonious” and shows that Freer sa w it in the whole as a work of art.
For that really is what the room is. While it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly we began to think of rooms or built environments as works of art, the era of the Aesthetic movement, when anything and everything could be covered in art, certainly marks an inflection point.
“That’s what makes this room singular. Not just that it survived,” contends Glazer. “Whistler himself thought of it as a singular work of art. That’s why he titled it the same way he titled his paintings with a musical title: Harmony in Blue and Gold, the Peacock Room. So the whole thing was meant to be this painting that you walk into. In the museum, that kind of duality is signified by the fact that it has a gallery number but it also has an accession number like all the objects do.”
The Freer & Sackler Galleries reopen on Saturday October 14 at 5 p.m. ET with a light show and Asian night market.