The Location: American Artist Declares Independence, Creates The Peacock Room (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Location: American Artist Declares Independence, Creates The Peacock Room

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and with the 4th of July just around the corner, this week we're talking Independence. We've learned how Capital Bike Share's popularity has boosted business for independent bike shop owners and we've heard about the Maryland School for the Blind's declaration of independence for all students.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:26
Coming up, we'll check out a new Fringe Festival show that's performed for and with just one audience member at a time. But first, we turn to an ex-pat American painter known for his rather feisty sense of independence, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the 1870s, that feisty independence landed Whistler in a rather interesting dispute, one involving painting, pounds and...

MS. KIM BENDER

00:00:52
From the time the museum was open in 1823 until the '70s, there were live peacocks that roamed the courtyard.

SHEIR

00:00:58
Live peacocks just strutting around?

BENDER

00:01:00
Yes.

SHEIR

00:01:00
Peacocks.

BENDER

00:01:01
A peacock room near the Peacock Room, I guess.

SHEIR

00:01:05
This here is Kim Bender, author of the blog, "The Location," and she'll bring us the scoop on artists and independence and peacocks oh my, in this month's edition of "The Location," our regular segment where we explore the hidden history of Washington's places, people and culture. This week's location is, yes, the magnificent blue and gold Peacock Room.

BENDER

00:01:27
At the Smithsonian's Freer Sackler Gallery, we're in the Freer Gallery of Art right now.

SHEIR

00:01:32
The Freer houses the museum's collection of Asian art and you'll see some pretty spectacular examples in The Peacock Room, like the 254 pieces of Asian pottery lining the gilded walnut shelves. The pieces belonged to museum founder Charles Lang Freer.

BENDER

00:01:46
He was an early collector of Whistler's art and a lifelong patron. And when he started to collect his art, Whistler was the one who actually encouraged him to collect Asian art.

BENDER

00:01:58
Whistler is also the one who painted The Peacock Room all those rich, vibrant blues and golds. But the thing is, he never was supposed to. The story begins about 30 years before Freer purchased The Peacock Room in 1904. So we're talking 1876 when Whistler's friend and patron, British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, decided to redesign his London dining room.

BENDER

00:02:21
Leyland hired an architect named Thomas Jekyll to build shelving, all this shelving that we see was built by Thomas Jekyll. He also put in some antique embossed leather and redesigned the dining room to display Leyland's collection of blue and white Chinese porcelains.

BENDER

00:02:41
At the same time that Jekyll was doing this project, Whistler was working on something in the front hallway of Leyland's house. And right before Jekyll was finished, he just wanted to consult briefly with Whistler about what colors he should paint the shutters. Leyland was in town at that time and he approved some minor work for Whistler to retouch the walls with some yellow and adorn the wainscoting with a wave pattern and then left and went back to Liverpool, where he was working.

BENDER

00:03:15
And around the same time, Jekyll became ill and sort of stopped overseeing the project. So Whistler, being the kind of guy that he was, just decided he was going to go crazy and fix parts of the room that he didn't think really worked.

SHEIR

00:03:30
So Leyland had given the go-ahead on some very small detailing and Whistler thought, you know what, I'm going to do a little bit more.

BENDER

00:03:35
Yes, I mean, the room is called Harmony in Blue and Gold. It's because everything harmonizes with each other. So I think he was probably trying to rebalance what he saw were some problems.

SHEIR

00:03:47
So what did Whistler do?

BENDER

00:03:49
He covers the ceiling with something called Dutch metal, which is imitation gold leaf. He paints over that with a pattern of peacock feathers and we can see that.

SHEIR

00:04:00
Blues and greens.

BENDER

00:04:01
Yes, and then he gilds the walnut shelving with gold leaf, as you can see. And he paints these beautiful shutters with peacocks, these large wooden shutters that go almost the height of the room, have these beautiful, beautiful peacocks. And all of this was inspired by the blue and white porcelain.

BENDER

00:04:23
So he writes to Leyland and tells him how wonderful all the changes he's made are and tells him not to bother to come back until all the details are perfect. But then he starts entertaining visitors and the press in Leyland's home to show them his beautiful work.

SHEIR

00:04:37
And Leyland's away this whole time?

BENDER

00:04:39
Yes, he's still in Liverpool. So, you know, Leyland's not too happy about it. He writes, "I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it." Which, when we find out how much the bill comes to, you can understand. Whistler charges Leyland the equivalent of $200,000 for this work that he never asked to have done. It seems that they were friends, and then this really killed that relationship.

BENDER

00:05:07
So Leyland finally agrees that he's going to pay half of that price, but when he sees the work, he decides he's going to pay not in guineas, which is the currency of professionals and artists, he's going to pay him in pounds, which is the currency of trade, which is sort of a slap in the face. And it's also not so nice because a pound is worth 20 shillings and a guinea is worth 21. So he's not even making as much money as they had agreed.

SHEIR

00:05:34
Whew, that's an insult.

BENDER

00:05:35
Well, it's an insult, but at the same time, no one asked him to do the work.

SHEIR

00:05:39
That's a good point.

BENDER

00:05:42
And so Whistler's still in the house when this all happens and he decides to take his revenge on Leyland after Leyland has tried to take his revenge on him. And if we look at the wall, we see two more peacocks standing opposite each other, one with his wings out and his plumage up and the other looking sort of dejected. And you can see below the one with his plumage up, there are little things that look kind of like coins.

BENDER

00:06:10
So what we're looking at is on the left, the sadder, more dejected peacock is Whistler, and Leyland, the angry bird, used to be known for his ruffled shirts and you can sort of see that the peacock has some ruffles on his neck and he has got these coins that he's not going to pay. And Whistler called the painting "Art and Money" or "The Story Behind the Room." So that's his little act of revenge, although it's kind of cool.

SHEIR

00:06:37
It's actually a very beautiful act of revenge.

BENDER

00:06:40
And so Leyland kicks him out of the house and Whistler never sees his room again. And you would think that Leyland would come back into his house and rip it out and change it, but he actually kept the room the way that it was until his death in 1892. In 1904, the room was removed from Leyland's house and installed in a London art gallery.

SHEIR

00:07:03
So like reconstructed piece by piece?

BENDER

00:07:04
Yes, and then from there, the same year, an American, Charles Lang Freer, who was a Detroit railroad car manufacturer, purchased the room.

SHEIR

00:07:15
So Freer buys the room and then takes it back to his home in America?

BENDER

00:07:20
In Detroit, right. And he actually has part of his carriage house outfitted to fit the room and they put it back piece by piece reinstalled and he showcases his Asian ceramics collection. The way we see it now is the way he displayed it. This layout of the porcelains comes from photos of Freer's house in 1908.

SHEIR

00:07:41
So how did it then come to the museum?

BENDER

00:07:44
In 1919, Freer dies, and the whole room is transported here to the Gallery and it's been fully restored since then. They cleaned it and you can really see the vibrant colors.

SHEIR

00:07:56
The Freer Gallery exhibit "The Peacock Room Comes to America," was originally set to close in spring of 2013, but we've just received word it's been extended. The Smithsonian also released a new book, "The Peacock Room Comes to America," with plenty of full-color photos. You can learn more about the exhibit and book and hear our dramatic reading of the heated letter exchange between Leyland and Whistler by visiting our website, metroconnection.org.
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