Tag Archives: Peacock Room

You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.

Peacocks: Four Men in Three Acts

Portrait of Whistler by Thomas Robert Way, lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

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.

I. 1876
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 New York Herald announces the sale of the Peacock Room, Freer|Sackler Archives.

II. 1904
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.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art during an extensive renovation in 1947.

III. 1923–present
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.”

Curtain.

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.

It’s a Book: The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room has had quite a few adventures since artist James McNeill Whistler painted the London dining room in 1876. From its journey to Detroit, where it was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s home in 1904, and then to Washington, DC, where it found its permanent home in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, the room has many stories to tell. The museum’s recent installation The Peacock Room Comes to America shows the Peacock Room as it appeared in 1908, when Freer used it to organize and display more than 250 ceramics that he had collected throughout Asia. As opposed to the blue-and-white wares favored by previous owner Frederick Leyland, Freer preferred to fill the shelves with pots with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes from Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, and Korea.

In honor of the exhibition, we’ve just published The Peacock Room Comes to America, a 64-page paperback with more than 80 color illustrations. Curator of American Art Lee Glazer takes a fresh look at the Peacock Room’s many lives, while focusing on the recent reinstallation. The book also provides insight into Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain, the conservation of the room, and the curator’s perspective on the project. New photography, bolstered by archival images, makes the book a valuable—and handsome—treasure for the Peacock Room’s many fans.

Copies of The Peacock Room Comes to America are available in the Sackler gift shop for $16.

Eye Wonder Redux

Kenzan style desk screen with design of mountain retreat; late 19th century; Kyoto workshop; buff clay, iron pigment, enamels under transparent lead glaze; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.20

About a year ago we invited our web visitors to engage in a new form of “Eye Wonder” by experiencing the Freer Gallery of Art on Google Art Project. The Art Project is an armchair art lover’s dream, offering unprecedented online access to collections and in-gallery street views, not to mention stunning gigapixel-level encounters with selected works of art in some of the world’s greatest museums. The Freer was among the first 17 museums around the globe to engage in this new digital art adventure.

Today Google Art Project launches a considerably enhanced and expanded “phase two” version. The site now brings together a wide range of institutions, large and small: iconic art museums as well as less traditional settings for great art.

On the Freer pages of Art Project, visitors will find 100 newly uploaded high-resolution images from the collections and greatly improved street view technology. Street-view strolls now extend to the entire museum and make more artworks available for up-close inspection. A virtual walk through The Peacock Room—as restored to its appearance in 1908, when museum founder Charles Lang Freer installed the room in his home and used it to organize and display his collection of more than 250 Asian ceramics—is resplendent with colors, textures, and shapes.

After taking in all four walls of this remarkable exhibition, a visitor, perhaps sitting at home in Hamburg or Honolulu with a cup of tea, can click a mouse to explore selected ceramics in thrilling detail. Take, for example, this intriguing Japanese desk screen from the Meiji era, inscribed with a poem by Li Dongyang.

We do indeed live in a time of Eye Wonder.

 

Deb Galyan is the head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

Crying Fowl at the Freer!

A peacock struts his stuff in the Freer Courtyard circa 1923.

With Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Paintings on view in the Freer, we searched around for some more images of birds and found this photograph of a peacock in the Freer courtyard in 1923, at the time of the museum’s opening. Yes, there were live peacocks running around (okay, maybe not running), perhaps an oh-so-subtle reminder for visitors not to miss Whistler’s Peacock Room. At the time, three peacocks were lent to the museum from the National Zoo. They remained in the museum during the warmer months, but were returned to the zoo in the winter.

What do you think? Would you like to see peacocks in the Freer courtyard today?

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.