Story of the Beautiful: The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery

First a little history.  An English shipping magnate named Frederick R. Leyland purchased a painting from James McNeill Whistler entitled, La Princess du pays de la porcelain, which he made the centerpiece of his London dining room.  In 1863-1864 Whistler boldly repainted the dining room (largely without permission of Leyland who was away on business in Liverpool), renaming the room Harmony in Blue and Gold:  The Peacock Room.  Whistler wanted the room’s ceiling, walls, shutters and shelving to harmonize with his painting of La Princess, which hung above the fireplace.  He also painted two more peacocks on the wall opposite The Princess.

In 1904 Charles Freer purchased the interior of the dining room and had it shipped to his mansion in Detroit.  Freer took the project to a new level of interpretation by installing his collection of Asian ceramics on the gilded wooden shelves.  Freer bequeathed his Whistler collection, including the Peacock Room, to the Smithsonian in 1906. Over time the blue wall covering had faded to teal green.

Pottery Peacock Room ush8
Sample of the pottery in the Peacock Room

The room has now been restored to its original splendor. The wooden wainscoting was revealed to be not murkey brown but greenish gold. And the dark, lusterless ceiling became vibrant with feather patterns. Once the conservation was complete, the dominant inspiration for the color scheme became clearly apparent: the coppery golds and brilliant blues and greens of Whistler’s decoration resemble the iridescent markings of peacock feathers.

On my recent visit to the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC I arrived early taking my time to enjoy all of the ceramics from Mesopotamia, Korea, China, Japan and the Islamic world.  I wandered into the Peacock Room, which seemed interesting but very dark.

Shutters Peacock Room
Shutters in the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery

As I was leaving the museum, one of the curators asked me why I was rushing out just when the famous peacock shutters (shown above) would open at noon.   As luck would have it I had arrived on a sunny day, so when I returned to the Peacock Room it was dramatically changed.   With light pouring in through the windows every detail of the room came to life – the beautiful green ceiling, the shimmering Prussian blue wall covering, and the fighting peacocks.

"The Peacock Room Comes to America" exhibition

Peacock-Room-631

A little more about The Princess.  The subject was Christina Spartali, an Anglo-Greek beauty whom all the artists of the day were clamoring to paint. When artists Whistler and Swinburne met Christina and her sister Maria for the first time, they were dressed in white with blue ribbon sashes. Swinburne was so overcome that he said of Spartali: “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”.

La princess du pays de la porclain James McNeill Whistler .192

This painting is also featured on the Google Art Project (googleartproject.com), a site that employs Google’s street-view and giga­pixel technologies to create an ever-expanding digital survey of the world’s masterpieces.

For a virtual 360 degree tour of the Peacock Room as it looked in London in 1876 and in Detroit in 1908 go to

http://peacockroom.wayne.edu/visit

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