Monday, September 05, 2011

Whistler at the Freer - Peacocks and Caprice

One of my favorite museums on the National Mall in DC is the Freer Gallery.
 "The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit who gave to the United States his collections and funds for a building to house them. The Italian-Renaissance-style gallery, constructed in granite and marble, was designed by American architect Charles Platt. When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. In subsequent years, the collections have grown through gifts and purchases to nearly triple the size of Freer's bequest." (Smithsonian)

It specializes in Asian art, but it also has Whistler's Peacock Room.  The Smithsonian's website tells the story of
this room, how it was designed by an architect for Fredrick  Leyland's porcelain collection.  It has a large painting of Whistler's so the architect consulted with Whistler who offered to touch it up a bit.  Instead he radically changed the room while his patron, Leyland, was away.  Leyland refused to pay the 2000 guineas Whistler billed him for the changes - which included the peacocks, and eventually paid him half the amount in pounds instead of guineas which made it even less. (you can read the whole story at the Smithsonian link.)
Perhaps in retaliation, Whistler took the liberty of coating Leyland's valuable leather with Prussian-blue paint and depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other on the wall opposite The Princess. He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock's throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The poor and affronted peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler's forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks "Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room."

The story, and much better photos, are on the Smithsonian site.  They also have a panorama of the room showing the ceramics here.

Another room has Whistler's "Nocturne" pictures of the Thames at night. As you might imagine, I found them rather dark and didn't take a picture, but I did find this interesting tidbit about them at

In 1877, Whistler began to paint a series of ‘Nocturnes’ based on the Thames views at night. One of his most famous works in this series in Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, originally called ‘Moonlights’. His patron, Frederick Leyland, an enthusiastic pianist, suggested the term ‘Nocturne’. Whistler replied, ‘I can’t thank you too much for the name Nocturne as the title for my Moonlights. You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics, and consequent pleasure to me; besides it is really so charming, and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.’
Critics were outraged. John Ruskin, when seeing Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and other night scenes at the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, broke out in print: ‘I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.  Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won the trial. Whistler was awarded a farthing damages; his feelings on the subject are embodied in the Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). reminds us there can be consequences of saying what you think:
The loss of Leyland as a patron and the effect of Ruskin’s harsh criticism left Whistler in a bad financial position. In 1879, Whistler was declared bankrupt and left for Venice for the next 14 months. During that stay in Venice, he produced four oils, many etchings and almost 100 pastels.
But Whistler was to recover.  The next year, 1889, according to the lengthy abcgallery biography, he was to meet Charles Lang Freer.

The room with the Nocturnes also has a picture called Caprice in Purple and Gold: the Golden Screen.

The model here was
". . . Whistler’s mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, called Jo. For a few years, this beautiful, red-haired Irishwoman managed Whistler’s affairs, keeping his house and assisting him with the sale of his work. To give herself respectability, she called herself Mrs. Abbott; her drunken father also referred to Whistler as ‘me son-in-law’. She sat for many of his . . ."  (abcgallery)

"Although The Golden Screen is in some ways a conventional Victorian painting, the model wears a Japanese costume and is seated on the floor like a courtesan. The composition is even more radical than the pose, considering the prevailing pictorial style: to Western eyes, the picture appears full of spatial puzzles, with a lacquer box that looks out of perspective and a folding screen that seems to float above a tilted floor. Whistler's concern was not to create a convincing illusion of space but to arrange shapes and colors like the patterns painted on the golden screen. Moreover, in documenting his collection, Whistler may have appreciated the typically Japanese means of structuring pictorial space, in which every object is shown in fuller dimension than is possible with Western perspective.
Whistler designed the frame and decorated it with Asian motifs, including badges of palm leaves and paulownia blossoms, in imitation of Japanese family crests." (Smithsonian)

This is a glimpse of just two rooms from the Freer, one of the smaller museums in the Smithsonian collection of museums.  Like all of the Smithsonian locations (including DC's zoo), the Freer is free. (Don't tell Eric Cantor.)  I'll try to get up more from the Freer soon.  

Oh, yes, here's a portrait of Whistler in 1865 by Henri Fantin-Latour.  Whistler would have been about  31.


  1. Thank you for highlighting this incredible treasure at an amazing museum. We recently built a house and, for the dining room, I took my "Peacock Room" T-shirt to the painter to match the color.

    The color was carried into the powder room and I plan to paint a pair of peacocks in gold & silver. (Unfortunately, my artistic talents are so limited that I won't be able to do much more than use stencils for this project.)

    It will be interesting to see if any of our guests "get" the reference. I've also chosen a rug for the great room that echoes Klimt's motifs.

    BTW - came to this blog via Immoral Minority's blogroll. I will be checking back on a regular basis.

  2. Anon, Thanks for dropping by and leaving a omment. And I hope you'll send a few pictures of your Peacock Room when it's finished.

  3. Actually, I can see why John Ruskin (who lived in our neck of the woods in Camberwell) panned the 'Old Battersea Bridge' painting. Not Whistler's best work, is it?


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