James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an expat American painter known for his rather feisty sense of independence, and in the 1870s, that feisty independence landed Whistler in a rather interesting dispute: one involving painting, pounds and peacocks. Yes, peacocks.
Whistler was the driving force behind The Peacock Room, the magnificent blue and gold room at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art.
The Freer houses the museum's collection of Asian art, and showcases some pretty spectacular examples in The Peacock Room, such as the 254 pieces of Asian pottery lining the gilded walnut shelves. The pieces belonged to museum founder Charles Lang Freer.
"He was an early collector of Whistler's art and a lifelong patron," says Kim Bender, who recently wrote about The Peacock Room's history on her blog, The Location. "When he started to collect his art, Whistler was the one who actually encouraged him to collect Asian art."
Whister is also the one who painted The Peacock Room all those rich, vibrant blues and golds. But here's the thing: He never was supposed to.
Frederick Leyland and the peacocks
The story begins about 30 years before Freer purchased The Peacock Room in 1904. In 1876, Whistler's friend and patron, British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, decided to redesign his London dining room. Leyland hired an architect named Thomas Jekyll to build shelving. Jekyll also put in some antique embossed leather and redesigned the dining room to display Leyland's collection of blue and white Chinese porcelains.
At the same time, Whistler was working on something in the front hallway of Leyland's house. Just before Jekyll finished, he wanted to consult with Whistler about what colors to paint the shutters. Leyland was in town at that time and he approved some minor work for Whistler (e.g. retouching the walls with some yellow, and adorning the wainscoting with a wave pattern). Then Leyland returned to Liverpool, where he was working.
Around the same time, Jekyll became ill and stopped overseeing the project.
"Whistler, being the kind of guy that he was, just decided to go crazy and fix parts of the room that he didn't think really worked," Bender says.
He covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf and painted it over with a blue and green pattern of peacock feathers. Then he gilded Jekyll's walnut shelving with gold leaf, and painted the giant window shutters with magnificently plumed peacocks, all inspired by the blue and white porcelain.
Bender says Whistler wrote 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."
Naturally, Leyland wasn't 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,'" Bender recounts. "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."
Leyland agreed to pay half the price, but when he saw Whistler's actual work on the room, he decided not to pay in guineas--the currency of professionals and artists--but rather in pounds, the currency of trade.
"Which is sort of a slap in the face," Bender says. "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.
"It's an insult," she adds. "But at the same time, no one asked him to do the work!"
Whistler was still in the house when all of this occurred, so he decided to take his revenge on Leyland.
"If we look at the wall, we see two more peacocks standing opposite each other," Bender explains. "One with his wings out and his plumage up, and the other looking sort of dejected. You can see below the one with his plumage up, there are little things that look kind of like coins. 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. 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. Whistler called the mural 'Art and Money, or The Story Behind the Room.'"
That was the final straw for Leyland. He kicked his former friend out of the house, and Whistler never saw the room again.
"You would think that Leyland would come back into his house and rip it out and change it," Bender says. "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."
The same year, Charles Lang Freer, an American railroad car manufacturer, purchased the room, and had it re-installed in his Detroit home.
"He actually [had] part of his carriage house outfitted to fit the room," Bender explains, "And they put it back piece by piece [so he could] showcase 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."
In 1919, Freer died, and the entire room was transported to the Freer Gallery, where it's since been fully restored.
The display of Freer's pottery, an exhibit titled "The Peacock Room Comes to America," was originally set to close in spring of 2013, but has been extended indefinitely. The Smithsonian has also released a new book, The Peacock Room Comes to America, with plenty of full-color photos of The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery.
[Music: "Turn Your Face" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Peacock Baby" by Reiko Ohara and the Rubies from Japanese Pop Cuties in Swingin' 60s]
Photos: The Location