The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is finally displaying its Victorian-era Peacock Room as the American artist James McNeill Whistler originally intended it to be seen; a piece of art in itself rather than a backdrop for displays of Asian ceramics.
The Peacock Room is one of the most alluring attractions at the Freer, drawing visitors in with its extravagant ornamentation and exaggerated paintings of peacocks. Its backstory is quite dramatic: Whistler, who resided in London then, renewed and restored the dining room of the British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland in 1876-77. However, Leyland was away whilst the overhaul, and subsequently wasn’t happy with neither the result nor the artist’s demand of a substantial sum for the redesign. The conflict led to an irreparable rift between the artist and the patron. Whistler ended up portraying their animosity in the centerpiece of the room, an allegorical painting of two male peacocks facing off. He never saw the Peacock room again…
Today, the room is a part of Charles Lang Freer’s Gallery of Art and is home to numerous ceramics he collected from Iran, Syria, China and Korea. Yet the pots were not enough in amount to present the space as Whistler intended, and therefore the biggest challenge for the curators was to find the right vessels to fill the space up as envisioned by the artist.
The Peacock Room in Blue and White is to be displayed indefinitely at the Smithsonian.