For the first time in more than a century, James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room can be seen as the artist originally intended it, now that the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art has restored the iconic installation to its original splendor.
The room, Whistler’s only extant decorative interior, began life as the London dining room of British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Whistler’s first major patron, Leyland wanted his home in Kensington “to be a palace of art to match his cultural standing,” says curator Lee Glazer, director of Colby College’s Lunder Institute for American Art.
The commission for the room had originally been given to architect Thomas Jeckyll, who was sidelined by illness. Whistler, who was working on another part of the house, volunteered to complete it. But he convinced Leyland to stay away, and went about completely redesigning the space.
“He sends Leyland letters, telling him, ‘I’m transforming your dining room. It’ll be a gorgeous surprise!'” Glazer tells Newsweek. “But he never said exactly what he was doing. And he didn’t tell Leyland that he was inviting members of the press to see what he was up to.”
To showcase Leyland’s collection of delicate blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain from 17th-century China, Whistler covered every inch of the walls and ceiling in Prussian blue and gold, crafting intricate patterns resembling peacock plumage. He even painted over 6th-century leather hangings Jeckyll had selected so they wouldn’t clash with Whistler’s own 1864 painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which was hung prominently over the fireplace.
When his client returned to London in 1877, he wasn’t pleased to find his dining room transformed and his house turned into a public spectacle. Leyland was also was less than thrilled about the rather substantial bill Whistler presented to him.
“They dickered back and forth and settled on half the rate Whistler was asking for,” Glazer says, “But their relationship was irrevocably damaged.”
Allowed to go back in and wrap up, the disgruntled artist added a new centerpiece: Two puffed-up male peacocks in a fighting stance, meant to represent Whistler and Leyland. (He titled the piece Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room.) “I have made you famous,” he allegedly told his former benefactor. “My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.”
Whistler never saw the room again but, Glazer says, Leyland must have seen something he liked: “He was one of the richest men in London. He could have easily redone the room. But he didn’t.”
The 1860s and ’70s saw the rise of Aestheticism in England—the idea of “art for art’s sake,” rather than to make a deeper social or political statement. And the Peacock Room is perhaps the most famous examples of the style. “Whistler believed in the ‘totalizing’ aesthetic, in providing an immersive experience into this world of beauty he was creating,” says Glazer. “He felt art shouldn’t be limited to the interior of a frame, but extend to the room itself.”
There was also a commercial aspect to his philosophy: There was a lot of money to be made from middle-class patrons who needed help decorating. Unfortunately, after his falling out with Leyland, Whistler fell out of favor with collectors and went through several years of financial straits and ridicule. It was those straits, though, that led him to reinvent himself and focus on watercolors. They dried faster than oil and could be made—and sold—quickly. (Not coincidentally, the Freer is also hosting its first major exhibition of Whistler’s watercolors since the 1930s.)
“Whistler recognized that in the modern world there is an inherent relationship between art and money,” Glazer says. “And he steadfastly believed the artist should be the most empowered to determine the value of his own art.”
After Leyland died in 1892, his family sold the Peacock Room to Charles Lang Freer, who had it dismantled, shipped to the U.S, and reassembled in his Detroit mansion. When he passed, the room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery in D.C., which opened in 1923. But this is the first time the original design has been seen since the 1800s. (By the time Freer acquired the room, the porcelains had all been auctioned off.) Restored and reopened to the public in May, The Peacock Room in Blue and White “gives you a clearer understanding of Whistler’s mind as an artist and a decorator,” says Glazer.
To approximate the original, her team examined photos of the room taken in Leyland’s house in 1892. Period Kangxi porcelains, similar to what Leyland would have displayed, line the east and north walls, framed by the gilded walnut latticework Jeckyll designed.
To fill the remaining west and south walls, the Freer commissioned 95 new ceramic pieces that follow the same ancient tradition of Chinese porcelain-making.
The room is accessible to the public during museum hours, but its shutters are only opened on the third Thursday of every month. While the gilded peacocks that Whistler regarded as the room’s crowning glory disappear when the shutters are open, natural light reveals many subtler details of his design, according to Glazer, including the painterly quality of the brushstrokes and incredible tonal variations.
“It’s more dynamic and truer to the way the room would have been experienced when it was a lived-in space versus a museum icon,” says Glazer. “In Leyland’s era, the shutters would have been closed only in the evening, so the gilded peacocks were part of the nocturnal aspect of the room.”
The Peacock Room in Blue and White is now open to the public at the Freer Gallery of Art in D.C. “Whistler in Watercolor” is on view through October 6, 2019.