A Brief History of the Peacock Room

Follow the surprising 200 year journey of the Peacock Room, the renowned decorative interior by American artist James McNeill Whistler. Take a transatlantic journey from England to America and explore its evolution as it moved from private homes in London and Detroit to its ultimate destination at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall.

Smithsonian on the National Mall

Here we are, 500 feet above the National Mall, standing on the Washington Monument’s observation deck. Facing us at the east end of the Mall is the U.S. Capitol, where the House and Senate meet. Between us and the Capitol are 11 of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums. Looking down the left side of the Mall, you can see the National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction, followed by the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History. Down the right side of the Mall, the Freer Gallery, which we are about to visit, is the square, blue-topped building, followed by the Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian Building, known as The Castle, the National Museum of African Art, the Arts and Industries Building, the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, which is the circular building, the National Air and Space Museum, and finally the National Museum of the American Indian. All of these museums are free, and open every day but December 25th. Before we leave the Washington Monument, have a look around this 360-degree view of Washington and see if you can find the White House and Lincoln Memorial. Then, let’s head over to the Freer.

The Freer Gallery of Art

The Smithsonian Institution has two museums of Asian art: the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened to the public in 1923, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which welcomed its first visitors in 1987. The two museums, physically connected by an underground passageway, share a common mission. They are dedicated to the study, exhibition, and appreciation of the arts of Asia. In addition, the Freer Gallery contains an important collection of nineteenth-century American art of the Aesthetic movement, punctuated by James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room, perhaps one of the earliest (and certainly one of the most controversial) art installations on record.

49 Prince’s Gate - Frederick Leyland's Home

The Peacock Room was originally the dining room in this London mansion at 49 Prince's Gate, home of Whistler’s first important patron, Frederick Leyland from 1874 until his death in 1892. He was a shipping magnate from Liverpool, England.

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F.R. Leyland, 1870-73 (1876/1877) by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Leyland Hires Thomas Jeckyll

In 1875 Leyland hired the architect Thomas Jeckyll to redecorate his dining room, where Whistler’s painting "The Princess From the Land of Porcelain" hung above the mantel.

Rendering of the Peacock Room, Spring of 1876 by Peter Nelsen by Peter NelsenSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Jeckyll created a lattice of carved shelving to display Leyland's collection of blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain.

Sunflower Andirons (1878/1884) by Thomas JeckyllSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Sunflower Andirons

He incorporated gilded, antique leather wall hangings and designed a pair of gilded sunflower andirons for the fireplace.

Portrait of Whistler (1861/1913) by Thomas Robert WaySmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Whistler Takes on the Dining Room

In April of 1876, while Whistler painted decorative panels in the entrance hall, Leyland asked him to advise Jeckyll about colors for the shutters and doors in the dining room.

Whistler applied dutch metal and a transparent greenish glaze to the woodwork.

In the summer, Jeckyll stopped working on Leyland’s house, and Leyland left London on extended business.

During their absence, Whistler took a few liberties with the dining room. To see what happened next, let’s enter the Peacock Room.

Peacock Room Panorama without Ceramics by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Leyland Returns to a Surprise

When Leyland returns to his London mansion he finds that it was Whistler who has indeed gone to town. Instead of adding minor flourishes in the dining room, whose walls were clad in floral-patterned leather, he'd painted nearly every surface in luminous shades of green, gold, and blue.

Whistler Demands Payment

The artist demands a payment of £2,000, nearly $200,000 in today's currency. Leyland isn't having any of it and offers half that amount.

Whistler finally agrees to this greatly reduced payment.

Hurt and angry, he painted the rear wall with a vindictive allegorical mural that he pointedly titled “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” It depicts Leyland as a proud and stingy peacock who is literally made of money. The artist is the poor put-upon peacock on the left. Its silver crest feather refers to Whistler's own distinctive white forelock.

Let's listen to a dramatic recreation of a series of letters exchanged by Whistler and Leyland, voiced by The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, Julian Raby and Andrew Hare, Head of East Asian Painting Conservation.

Frederick Leyland and James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Settling the Account

"Alright Jimmy; I've received your bill, and I think we should settle up our account. But as I told you the other day, I cannot consent to the amount you spoke of; £2000. I really don't think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without at least telling me ahead of time."

Nearly Blind with Sleep

"My very dear Leyland, it was you, after all, who asked me to help with the room last summer. I stayed behind when everyone else, including you, had left town for the season. Every morning up at 6, working into the evening, nearly blind with sleep, and blue peacock feathers."

A Few Modest Changes

"But I only asked for a few modest changes."

A Brilliant Surprise

"And I gave you a brilliant surprise! The room is alive with beauty. Gorgeous! Delicate and refined to the last degree. There is no room in London like it, mon cher."

Take Them Away!

"But you did the additional work without any order from me. The gilded shelves; the peacock feathers on the ceiling. And those shutters? The peacocks you put on those shutters? I don't require them. I can only suggest you take them away and sell them to someone else."

It is Positively Sickening to Think

"It is positively sickening to think that I should have labored to build up that exquisite Peacock Room for such a man to live in."

Let Us Agree to a Fair Price

"I'm sorry; it's really intolerable you should feel aggrieved. You are to blame for not letting me know that you were developing into some elaborate scheme of decoration what was intended to be a very slight affair; the work of comparatively few days. Jimmy, I'm sorry that there should be such unpleasantness between us. Come now, let's agree to a fair price. A £1000?"

Art Will Outlive Money

"Alright, we will split the cost of the room's true value. But, mon cher, art will outlive money. Your fame is assured; as the unappreciative owner of a room whose price you refused to pay."

An Artistic Barnum

Jimmy, it's scarcely necessary for me to notice your assertion that I shall only be known as the possessor of your Peacock Room. I hope it's not true. But if true, it's doubly painful to have my name so prominently connected with yours.

"You have degenerated into nothing but an artistic Barnum. A con artist! I shall forbid my servants to admit you; and I shall tell my children I do not wish them to have any further intercouse with you. And if I find you near my wife, I'll publicly horse-whip you."

Art and Money; or the Story of the Room by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room

"Theatrical in your threat; ridiculous in your rage; fuming in your frill. I refer you to the allegorical mural of the fighting peacocks. Behold the silver-crested peacock on the left; se moi; the Artiste. The other, bedecked with coins, and bristling silver feathers on its throat; well, that is the Patron in his customary frilled shirtfront.

"The painting is know to all London as 'Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room'. From a business point of view, money is all important, but for the artist the work alone remains the fact. That it happened in the house of this one or that one is merely the anecdote. But that in some future dull Vasari; you will go down to posterity, like the man who paid Correggio in pennies!"

"Forgive the tone, if you find it flippant."

Peacock Room by Lumere by LumereSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Leyland Dines in the Peacock Room until His Death

Although he quarreled with Whislter, Leyland kept the Peacock Room exactly as Whistler intended it. He dined facing the fighting peacocks until his death in 1892.

The Peacock Room Comes to America

After Leyland’s death, Gilded Age industrialist and museum founder Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) purchased the Peacock Room in 1904. It was dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, and reassembled in an annex built onto Freer’s home in Detroit, Michigan. Freer filled the room’s shelves with more than 250 ceramics he had collected from all over Asia. Photographs of the room made in 1908 provided the basis of the installation you are now viewing, "The Peacock Room Comes to America".

The Peacock Room as Envisioned by Freer

After he purchased the Peacock Room and moved it from London to his mansion in Detroit in 1904, Freer filled the shelves with pots he had acquired from Egypt, Iran, Japan, China, and Korea. The current presentation of works is based on photographs taken in Freer's Detroit residence in 1908.
Much like the room's arrangement in Detroit more than a century ago, this exhibition underscores Freer's belief that "all works of art go together, whatever their period." His faith in cross-cultural aesthetic harmonies achieved its ultimate expression in the Freer Gallery of Art itself, which opened to the public in 1923. Whistler's imaginative Peacock Room, now fittingly located between galleries of Chinese, Korean and American art, embodies the meeting of East and West. Enjoy the Peacock Room as Charles Lang Freer did by making unexpected aesthetic connections between art and decoration, paintings and ceramics, and America and Asia.

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine) (1863-1865) by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

This painting, popularly know as “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain”, which hangs over the mantel in the Peacock Room, was part of a series of costume pictures undertaken by Whistler in mid-1860s in which western models appear in Asian dress, surrounded by Chinese and Japanese objects from Whistler's own collections.

Christina Spartali

Here, the noted Victorian beauty Christina Spartali strikes a pose that recalls both the elongated figures depicted on Chinese blue-and-white porcelain and the graceful courtesans that appear in ukiyo-e prints.

The Imagined East

Whistler never visited Asia, and his creative borrowing of eastern objects and influences was motivated by a desire to suggest the temporal and spatial distance of a foreign, and therefore imaginary realm, rather than by an interest in Asian cultures per se

Near Eastern Ceramics

We are now joined by Chief curator and curator of Islamic Art, Massumeh Farhad who will tell us about Charles Lang Freer’s interest in Near Eastern ceramics, including Raqqa pottery. Named for the region in Syria where they were believed to have originated, many of these pieces are on view for the first time since the museum opened in 1923.

All Works of Art Go Together

Take some time to look around the room at the wondrous array of Asian ceramics while Louise Cort, curator of ceramics at the museum, discusses Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about collecting. Believing that "all works of art go together," he acquired—then displayed—a large variety of Asian ceramics in the Peacock Room.

Whistler's Interior DesignSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Now enjoy a final look at the artistry and controversy of Whistler's masterpiece, "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room".

The Freer Turns a New Page

When the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923, the museum was so filled with the spirit of its founder, Charles Lang Freer, that one of his friends referred to the building as “Mr. Freer’s Autobiography.”

This “autobiography”—embellished over the last ninety years—is now getting a new enhancement. As we embrace the digital age, we have made our entire collection available online, and the physical building, too, is seeing changes. On January 4, 2016, the Freer Gallery will close its doors for eighteen months while the building undergoes necessary maintenance and the galleries are returned to a look closer to the founding vision of Charles Lang Freer and his architect Charles Platt. We will also upgrade the Meyer Auditorium to improve our ability for telecasting, as we intend to share our performances and lectures worldwide. At the same time, we will work to enhance the visitor experience so that the Freer becomes a museum for twenty-first-century audiences, while maintaining its nearly one hundred-year-old elegance and aesthetic.

In the meantime, enjoy this and other virtual experiences we'll be creating for you, and visit our exhibitions in the adjoining Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

We look forward to welcoming you back in 2017, as the "autobiography" turns a new page.

Credits: Story

Curated by Lee Glazer
Associate Curator, American Art
Freer | Sackler

Edited by Maya Foo
Museum Specialist
Freer | Sackler

Produced by Marc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Developer
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Smithsonian Institution, 2015

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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