The Peacock Room

Hordes of visitors at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. continue to marvel at the fascinating display of colour at Harmony in Blue and Gold room, which is the most-visited section at the gallery

The place is filled with incredible treasures but the ‘corner’ most visited in the famed Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC might well be The Peacock Room. The name of its ‘creator’ — the American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who garnered fame in England for the most part — might be a faint memory, but the room survives and looms large. The Princess from the Land of Porcelain still stands in that room, holding a Japanese fan and gazing wistfully back at the viewer, and the Harmony in Blue and Gold might have been the name originally preferred by its maker, but the peacock theme is what defines it. The coppery gold, brilliant blue and green stays in the mind, and the feathery patterns and iridescent markings on the tail of that glorious bird keep shimmering in memory.

One of a pair of peacocks in the Peacock Room
One of a pair of peacocks in the Peacock Room

The story of the Peacock Room might have been told several times but it continues to fascinate. It goes back to a wealthy gentleman from Liverpool in England, a shipping magnate — Frederick Leyland by name — who had a very rich and distinguished collection of Chinese porcelain and wanted to display it in the best manner possible in his London home. A great dining room in which those precious objects could be showcased was planned and a talented interior architect, Thomas Jeckyll, was engaged by him for the job. Jeckyll constructed an opulent room, with a lattice of intricately carved shelves for housing the ceramics, and lined the walls with ‘antique gilded leather’.

Above the fireplace, he hung a large painting by Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, a work inviting in itself but especially appropriate for the room, for, it went with the theme of those delicate Far Eastern objects, which were Leyland’s great love.

The work was now nearly finished but, a little uncertain about the colours to choose for painting the shutters and doors of the room, Jeckyll decided to consult Whistler, who was, then, living in London, and who had also been engaged by the owner of the mansion, Leyland, for decorating the entrance hall. Whistler, concerned by the fact that the red roses on the walls might clash with his painting of the Princess, offered help and volunteered to ‘retouch the walls with traces of yellow’, but also added a delicate ‘wave pattern’ at certain places in the room. Taking it that his dining room was now complete, Leyland went back to his business in Liverpool. But, in his absence, Whistler almost took the room over and began working on it on his own, boldly and without authority: adding, complementing, accenting, elements in it. He covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, called ‘Dutch metal’, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He overpainted the shelves in gold, and ‘embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks’.

Proud of his work, he then wrote to Leyland that his dining room was now "really alive with beauty — brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree".

"I assure you," he wrote to his patron, "you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!"

Right: A view of the Peacock Room with Whistler’s painting of the Princess from the Land of Porcelain. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Right: A view of the Peacock Room with Whistler’s painting of the Princess from the Land of Porcelain. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

He went further and urged Leyland not to return to London yet, since the room should not be seen ‘before every detail was perfect’. And yet, on his own, he began inviting visitors to the room and entertaining them there. When Leyland found this out — the excessive but unauthorised additions to the room and all the lavish entertainments in his absence — he was greatly incensed. Now a bitter quarrel ensued between patron and painter. The matter was picked up by the London press for it became known that Leyland refused to pay Whistler the full payment he demanded. Eventually a grudging settlement was arrived at but, ‘perhaps in retaliation’, Whistler coated Leyland’s valuable leather with Prussian-blue paint and added a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other on the wall opposite his own painting of The Princess. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird were painted the coins that Leyland had refused to pay; and the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat were perhaps allusions to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. Needling his patron further, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks "Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room." He added a blue rug to complete the scheme and titled the room Harmony in Blue and Gold.

Interestingly, Leyland made no changes to the room and kept it exactly as Whistler had left it. The artist never saw the ‘Peacock Room’ again. The year was 1877.

The Room has travelled since then. Leyland died in 1892, not having given up till the end on adding to his collection of porcelain. Whistler himself passed away in 1903. The Peacock Room went up for sale at the Bond Street in 1904 when Charles Lang Freer, a man who had made his fortune in cars and railroads, bought it, took it apart and re-installed it at his home in Detroit, Michigan. There it stayed till Freer, who had a great collection of art and had decided to found an Art Gallery in Washington, offered it to the famous Smithsonian Institution as long as they housed his collection exclusively in a museum, which was to be named after him. That did happen; in 1916 construction began, everything funded by Freer himself. The donor died in 1919 but the Freer Gallery — delayed by the World War — opened in 1923. There the Peacock Room, transferred now from Detroit to Washington, stands today.

Hordes of visitors continue to see the room and marvel at its harmonies of blue and gold. One wonders however how many of them notice the silver coins scattered at the feet of the angered peacock that Whistler had painted there.