May 15, 2015

"Even without knowing the backstory, there’s a sort of heaviness to the room" — The Peacock Room.

The artist Darren Waterston is talking about a truly fabulous room made by James McNeill Whistler. You can see Whistler's Room and — right next to it, — Waterston's homage to it, which is called "Filthy Lucre" (at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.). Look at how incredibly cool both of these spaces are:



The backstory:
A wealthy Englishman named Frederick R. Leyland asked his friend Whistler what color he should paint his dining room, which contained one of the artist’s paintings. Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls and add some decorative waves to the wood paneling. Leyland left town on business and Whistler went wild, gilding the ceiling and painting golden peacocks on the shutters. When the artist presented Leyland with the bill: 2,000 guineas (about $200,000 today), the businessman balked, and eventually paid half.

Incensed, Whistler finished the project by painting two peacocks poised for a fight: One of the birds represents Leyland and has silver coins scattered around his feet....
The client wasn't happy, the artist was only getting paid half, so the artist painted even more, the best part, the part with the birds? That sounds a little screwy. Is that the real story? I don't know if Waterston believes all that or not, but his alternate Peacock Room has the whole place falling apart. "I didn’t want it to look like some particular traumatic event took place, like an earthquake.... I wanted it to feel much more dreamy, like a surrealist painting." Beautiful!

12 comments:

rhhardin said...

Whistler's Dog in the family room.

ddh said...

The Peacock Room is in the Freer Gallery of Art, which specializes in Asian and 19th century American art and is above ground. The Sackler Museum of Asian Art is next door and below ground.

Ann Althouse said...

@ddh Thanks for the correction. I've rewritten that sentence to get it rights.

That makes a lot more sense.

ddh said...

The unifying theme between Asian art and 19th century American art is the influence of japonisme on many Western artists in the late 1800s, Whistler included. The Freer does not exchange its collection for exhibitions, whereas the Sackler has an active program of exchanges with other museums of Asian art.

Terry said...

A pound was 20 shillings, a guinea was 21 shillings. Paying in guineas was a class thing. If the guy who painted your room was a worker, you paid him in pounds. If he was an artist, you paid him in guineas.

traditionalguy said...

To me The Royal Peacock Room was the Jazz Club on Auburn Avenue where we could go to hear perfomances by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin.

It's still there, down from the MLK Center.

Shanna said...

I love the freer gallery! But I thought they shut it down. Maybe not? Good.

tim maguire said...

The guy asks advice, Whistler volunteers to do a bit of work, and then presents a bill for 5 years salary and he's miffed that he only gets half?

A) Whistler sounds like a real piece of work.
B) The story is bunk.
C) Both.

William said...

As a dining room, it would be a fine place for a mushroom omelette, but I wouldn't want to eat macaroni and cheese there.

mikee said...

I recall standing in awe of the Peacock Room the first time I saw it - and being unable to get the Monty Python sketch of Wilde, Shaw and Whistler insulting the King out of my head.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxXW6tfl2Y0

James Lileks said...

I was there on Tuesday, and had the exact same reaction: didn't know the story, found the room unnerving and oppressive.

If someone didn't read the whole story, it's crazy: Whistler painted a nasty picture of Leyland, his patron, and when Leyland came to collect a debt he was greeted by a picture of himself as a grotesque monster, painted in the Peacock Room hues.

Also, Whistler was supposedly keen on Leyland's wife, who left him two years after the room was done. Oh, and the original artist - named JEKYLL, of all things - went mad and covered himself in gold leaf before he was carted off to the asylum. No wonder it feels heavy.

Ann Althouse said...

Hi, James. Thanks foe the extra detail and reinforcement on mu skepticism!