Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room"

Deep within the formulated beauty of the Freer Gallery of Art one gets a glimpse of an almost overwhelmingly stunning display of richness, The Peacock Room. 

Designed in 1876 by architect Thomas Jeckyll for wealthy London gent Frederick R. Leyland, the room served two purposes 1.) a place in which Leyland could entertain, and 2.),possibly most importantly, to display a carefully crafted collection of priceless Chinese porcelain. An elaborate network of shelving was designed to best highlight said impressive collection.

James McNeil Whistler was then commissioned to provide a work of art to serve as a focal point above the fireplace. Understanding the importance of the porcelain collection, which Whistler’s benefactor had amassed so thoughtfully, and perhaps because he was paid to do so, Whistler created “Lo Princess du Pays la Porcelaine” to proudly occupy the valuable space above the fireplace.

After his work was complete, Whistler was then brought in to act as a consultant for the finishing touches to the room’s decor. And, provide finishing touches he did!

The ceiling was guilded with a paint technique designed to emulate a peacocks feathers. Whistler didn’t stop there, although he was supposed to. He was so proud of his work, and insistent on self promoting, that he decided to start receiving company and lavishly entertaining in Leyland’s dining room sans permission. Once news had reached Whistler’s benefactor of his behavior he immediately requested that Whistler cease any further work. Upset at Leyland’s reaction Whistler released his emotion in the only way in which he knew how -he painted. He covered the expensive leather upholstered wall panels in Persian-blue paint, and decorated the wall opposite the fireplace with a scene of dueling peacocks.

One bird is believed to represent Leyland and his overbearing and controlling ways, while the other the docile and innocent Whistler.

After Leyland passed away the room was purchased from his London home by Charles Lang Freer to be disassembled, shipped, and reassembled in Freer’s Detroit home where it, I’m sure, acted as a chic backdrop for many nights of entertainment. Following Freer’s death, the room was again disassembled, shipped, and reassembled in Freer’s newly constructed art gallery in Washington, DC where still it rests quietly as if anticipated its next great move.

For further reading: The Peacock Room A Cultural Biography by Linda Merrill


  1. I just saw this-my internet had been down for three days-yikes! Fabulous post-I need to do a post on this on Chinoiserie Chic and will of course link to you.

  2. Oh, I trek my way down to this room everytime I'm in the Freer! It's like a little hidden gem at the bottom of the museum.

  3. How Beautiful! To be bathed in this bliss, was well worth cutting the rug at some evening nuptials!

  4. i don't think i can over that ceiling. it's SO extraordinary.

    happy weekend, scott!