The Battle of the Peacock Room: Two New Exhibits at the Freer

In a painting of quarrelsome golden peacocks, Whistler famously allegorized his relation with his patron, Frederick Leyland.  He called one peacock “L’Art” and the other “L’Argent,” and he painted them, insultingly, onto Leyland’s dining room wall. On the viewer’s right, “L’Argent” looks quite dominant: its tail feathers are erect, its wings spread aggressively, and its neck ruff—a reference to Leyland’s customary ruffled shirt—marches pertly up his neck. Beak open, the dominant bird stands in a drift of coins, surrounded by a haze of golden dots. On the left, L’Art is on the defensive, its tail on the ground, its wings at awkward half-mast.  The painting dominates the entire Peacock Room, which has been removed from its domestic context and displayed since 1923 at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. Although as a whole the formalism and sinuous lines of Whistler’s decorative painting in the Peacock Room suggest Art Nouveau, Aestheticism and even Modernism, “L’Art et L’Argent,” Whistler’s fit-of-pique allegory, is typically Victorian in its narrative momentum and easily captioned representation of wealth’s capacity to bully art.

Harmony in Blue and Gold, as Whistler named the room, was the gift of Charles Freer when he established the first art museum of the Smithsonian Institution by donating his collections of American art and Asian art.  From now until 2013, Freer’s collection of Asian stoneware and earthenware is on display in “The Peacock Room Comes to America,” assembled by Lee Glazer, the Freer’s curator of American art. Downstairs in a separate gallery is another recent exhibit called “Chinamania,” which holds several gorgeous examples like the seventeenth-century Kangxi porcelain that both Leyland and Whistler collected. Within “Chinamania” is also a set of Whistler’s illustrations of the blue and white Kangxi china. Together, “The Peacock Room Comes to America” and “Chinamania” are worth visiting, if only to get a new look at the collecting work—extraordinary in itself—of these three late nineteenth-century connoisseurs. Equally compelling, however, is the way the installation of Freer’s ceramics bring into focus the Peacock Room’s pivotal position between Victorian Aestheticism and the early twentieth-century’s Modernist preoccupation with primitive form. Freer’s muted, textured pots and plates underscore the interstitial position of Whistler’s work and suggest, by their air of primal, useful minimalism, that Whistler sets up a second allegorical battle in the room—adding, to the battle between art and wealth, the momentous clash between Victorian and avant-garde aesthetics.

The allegory of the fighting peacocks came to be painted in 1877, after Leyland, a shipping magnate, had failed to appreciate Whistler’s extensive repainting, in gold and Prussian blue, of his dining room. Leyland, heretofore an appreciative and tolerant patron, had only asked Whistler to add such decorations as would enhance the colors of the room’s centerpiece, Whistler’s Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. In an inspired, exhausting frenzy, Whistler painted much more than Leyland had asked.  As Linda Merrill narrates in her magisterial 1998 The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, Leyland responded less than enthusiastically; the two men then quarreled about appropriate payment for the work Whistler had already done. Rather than stopping his painting, the artist went on to cover Leyland’s dining room–including valuable Renaissance leather panels–in more gold and blue. Whistler had initially left open the space above a sideboard for a painting of his called “The Three Girls.” Instead, in the empty space, he indignantly painted the battling peacocks, and his friendship with Leyland was severed. “The Three Girls” was never finished and is not extant.

In 1904 American rail tycoon Charles Freer succeeded Leyland as owner of the notorious room. The architect, Thomas Jeckyll, had designed it as a system of painted leather, wooden panels and coppery gold shelving to hold Leyland’s collection of Kangxi porcelain. Thus after Leyland’s death Freer could disassemble the entire room and have it shipped to his home in Detroit, where he installed it in a former stable to hold his own collection of unpolished Asian ceramics (now on display). No longer a dining room, it became a place to take visitors and smoke cigars. As curator, Glazer has used photos from the period to reassemble Freer’s collection as it had been displayed in Detroit, and Freer’s eye as a collector and assembler of beautiful objects is shown to great advantage in her exhibition. To the twenty-first century eye, the proto-modernism of Whistler’s Aestheticist interior is better viewed as a habitat for the Modernist “primitivism” of Freer’s collection of worn, iconic vases from China, Korea, Japan, Iran and Egypt, rather than as a gallery for the familiar Chinese exportware that Leyland and Whistler collected. In the separate gallery lighting of the “Chinamania” installation, the shiny blue and white surfaces of Kangxi porcelain can now come into their own as marvels of detailed representative scenes and decorative painting, instead of competing with the alternating iridescences and shadows of Whistler’s peacock-feather scheme. To me it seems that we can only understand how Whistler felt so inspired by the Kangxi pots when they don’t have to compete with the intensity of his artistic response to them.

In the museum interior, it’s easy to forget that the Peacock Room once functioned as a place to eat. Only the three servants’ call buttons, still attached to the door frame nearest the wife’s seat at the bottom of the table, remind us of the meals served there. “L’Art et L’Argent” would have appeared opposite Leyland’s seat, above his wife’s head as they entertained guests. Around the delicate framework of shelving, Whistler painted many stylized peacock feathers. These devolve into a marvelously controlled set of frames for ceramics (not surprisingly, since Whistler considered the frame to be an integral aspect of a painting). Chemical analysis has shown that Whistler used gold and platinum in his paints, and under the quickly flickering light of gas pendant lamps, against the deep blue green of the leather panels, the golden peacocks, abstract feather patterns, and reflective blue and white surfaces of the Kangxi china must have coruscated harmonically, even synaesthetically. The Peacock Room with blue and white china offers us a window into a late Victorian moment, when a wealthy man could try, idealistically, to create a home dedicated to art for art’s sake , and the commodification of art could still be a scandal when represented on the wall of the accused Philistine. Now, under the pendants rewired for electricity, the stark immobility of Freer’s collection of rustic pots dampens the glitter and offers us a window into a different, more avant-garde aesthetic. It helps us see that in Whistler’s Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, hanging opposite the dueling peacocks, the decorative surfaces of Aestheticism and the primitive shapes of Modernism meet in a harmonious manner. Freer’s ceramics show us that Whistler left Leyland looking backward by inserting the allegorical dueling peacocks where “The Three Girls” would have hung. Wealth may seem to have won from the point of view of the master’s end of the dining table; but the artist forced Leyland to turn his Victorian back away from The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, Whistler’s great harbinger of Modernist formalism.

Photo credit: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.61


The Peacock Room Comes to America: April 9, 2011–Spring 2013;  Freer Gallery of Art.

Chinamania: August 7, 2010–August 7, 2011.

Lally, James C. Pope Memorial Lecture: “Two Great American Collectors of Chinese Ceramics: Morgan and Freer.” To be held on Saturday, June 25, 2011, 2 pm, in the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery.

New Yorker slide show with audio commentary by Peter Schjeldahl: The Peacock Room Comes to America.

References and Further Reading

Hobbs, Susan. The Whistler Peacock Room. Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1980.

Merrill, Linda. The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Pope, John A.  “The Freer Gallery of Art.”  Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 69/70, 380-398. Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Pyne, Kathleen. “Whistler and the Politics of the Urban Picturesque.” American Art, Vol. 8, Nos. 3-4, 60-77.  The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Birds of a Feather: Whistler’s Peacock Room.” The New Yorker, April 18, 2011.

Teukolsky, Rachel. The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Winter, John and Elisabeth West FitzHugh. “Some Technical Notes on Whistler’s ‘Peacock Room.’” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Nov., 1985), 149-154. International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

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