When his architect Thomas Jekyll fell ill, shipping magnate Frederick Leyland turned to his friend, the artist James McNeill Whistler, to complete renovations on his dining room. Leyland presumed Whistler would make a few alterations but returned to a totally transformed space. Whistler had painted over Leyland’s imported leather wall coverings, gilded the room’s shelving, and covered the ceiling with his blue, green, and gold peacock motif. Leyland refused to pay Whistler’s proposed fee. In frustration, Whistler left his former patron with a mural of two fighting peacocks, a composition he titled Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. For more on this feud, see A Brief History of the Peacock Room below and visit The Story of the Beautiful, a collaboration with Wayne State University.
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, James McNeill Whistler left the United States in 1855 and studied in Paris before settling permanently in London. He was fascinated by the arts of the Asian continent, particularly the arts of Japan. Browse more than one thousand works by Whistler in the National Museum of Asian Art’s digital collections, or view highlights in this online gallery.
Frederick Richards Leyland (1831–1892)
Frederick Richards Leyland was a British shipping magnate, patron of the arts, and early supporter of James McNeill Whistler. Whistler developed a close relationship with both Leyland and his family, a bond recorded in a series of intimate portraits that Whistler created of Leyland and his wife and daughters. In 1869, Leyland purchased an opulent house at 49 Princes Gate, London, which would become Whistler’s most complete work of art and eventually turn artist and patron against one another.
Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919)
Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was an important collector of Asian and American art. Born in Kingston, New York, in 1854, he made his fortune in the railroad business and built a home in Detroit, Michigan. Freer met James McNeill Whistler in 1890, and the two began a long collector-artist relationship. In 1904, he purchased Whistler’s Peacock Room, which he installed in his home in Detroit and then moved to his museum at the Smithsonian Institution. To learn more about Charles Lang Freer, see the Charles Lang Freer Resource Gateway.
Christina Spartali (1846–1884)
Christina Spartali, a young woman of Greek descent and a renowned beauty, posed for the painting that hangs above the hearth in the Peacock Room. In the painting, Whistler surrounds Spartali with Chinese and Japanese objects that the artist admired and collected. The painting was purchased by Frederick Leyland, but Whistler felt the colors of the dining room in which Leyland hung it failed to complement the work. The painting inspired the artist’s dramatic—and unsolicited—redesign of the space. To learn more about the painting, explore the museum’s digital collections.
Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881)
Thomas Jeckyll was the British architect, designer, and metalworker to whom Frederick Leyland originally entrusted the remodel of his London dining room. Jekyll designed the intricate wooden latticework shelves and decorative light fixtures. When poor health forced Jeckyll to stop working on the room in 1876, Whistler stepped in to finish the job—and to utterly transform the space. Like Whistler, Jeckyll enjoyed merging English and Japanese aesthetic elements in his work. See metalwork by Jeckyll in the museum’s digital collections.