The history of the Peacock Room has all the makings of a quirky little opera, including larger-than-life cast members—artist, aesthete, and raconteur James McNeill Whistler; industrialists-turned-art-collectors Charles Lang Freer and Frederick Leyland; and architect Thomas Jeckyll. It’s a story of art, money, taste, and a world with one foot in the West and the other in the East. Our tale begins in London in 1876. Cue the music.
The home of Frederick Leyland
49 Prince’s Gate, London, England
For his new mansion in the fashionable neighborhood of Kensington, Leyland commissions artist James McNeill Whistler to decorate the stairway and asks architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the adjacent dining room, whose walls are covered in antique gilt-leather. Jeckyll obliges by creating a structure of latticed walnut shelving inspired by traditional European porcelain cabinets, thus giving Leyland the means to display his extensive collection of Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain.
When he has a question about what to paint the wooden shutters and doors, Jeckyll calls on Whistler for advice (did I mention Leyland was out of town?). Whistler takes matters into his own hands and begins to paint the dining room in much the same way he does the hall: using imitation gold leaf and a transparent green glaze to emulate the shimmering effects of Japanese lacquer. Shortly after, Jeckyll becomes ill and has to remove himself from the project. (He eventually goes mad and dies in an insane asylum.)
From there, Whistler, whose celebrated painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain is the central focus of the dining room, starts to make other changes. Inspired by the Princess, he brings a Japanese sensibility to the room. We’re in the heart of Victorian England, but in Whistler’s world, we’re entering a doorway to Asia. He even ignites the craze for collecting blue-and-white porcelain that the London tabloids of the day nickname “Chinamania.”
When Leyland returns home and discovers the extensive renovations he did not approve, he refuses to pay Whistler in full for “the gorgeous surprise.” In turn, Whistler immortalizes their feud by painting a pair of fighting peacocks on the wall opposite the Princess. He calls it “Art and Money, or the Story of the Room.”
The home of Charles Lang Freer
33 Ferry Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
Two years after his death in 1892, Leyland’s home is sold to Blanche Watney, who is not enamored of the Peacock Room. (Leyland’s large collection of blue-and-white porcelain doesn’t convey in the sale.) She decides to sell it and has it dismantled in 1904. It is moved to the offices of Obach and Company, a London art dealer.
Somewhat ambivalent about the Peacock Room as a work of art, Charles Lang Freer purchases it out of a sense of duty to his old friend Whistler (who had died the previous year) and has an extension built on his Detroit house to accommodate it. In time, Freer makes it his own: the room becomes a staging area where he refines his concept of aesthetic correspondences between American and Asian art. In Michigan he takes pleasure in placing objects from different countries side-by-side and being astonished by the “conversation” that takes place between the pieces. He prefers ceramics with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes, as opposed to the slick blue-and-whites favored by Leyland, and fills the shelves of the Peacock Room with ceramics acquired from China, Japan, Korea, Iran, and Syria.
Freer Gallery of Art Washington, DC
Charles Lang Freer bequeaths the Peacock Room and his extensive collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian. The room is dismantled in 1919 and sent to the nation’s capital, where it is permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art. Peacocks are even kept in the museum’s courtyard, a nod to the famous dining room that had been transformed into a timeless work of art.
Over the years the Peacock Room has become the most visited gallery in the museum. People come to see the Princess and the fighting peacocks on the wall opposite her.
Two years ago, technicians from Google photographed the Princess in super-high definition as part of a worldwide museum documentation project. Last year, the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics were temporarily removed, and the ceramics that Freer held in highest esteem were installed in the Peacock Room under the exhibition title The Peacock Room Comes to America. The Princess and the fighting peacocks remain, but the room once again appears the way Charles Lang Freer envisioned it at the turn of the last century, thus adding a new chapter to “the story of the room.”
You can also listen to an audio recording of Four Men and Three Acts, as well as other stories inspired by the Peacock Room, and view a panorama of this famous work. Bring the room home with you by picking up our gorgeous new book, available exclusively in the Sackler shop.