My Blog » Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

It’s no secret that I have a fascination with Aesthetic art and design, among many other things. I admit I am lured by the beauty and extravagance of the movement. Happily, at the distance of 150+ years, I can look at things through rose-colored glasses; I have the luxury of romanticizing the past and imagining it is applicable to my life.

So with that fascination in mind, this spring when my husband and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. for our anniversary, I made it a point to stop by the Freer Gallery of Art to check out the installation of Whistler’s Peacock Room. And boy, it didn’t disappoint.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Peacock Room, here is a short history, gleaned from the exhibit brochure and Wikipedia. Whistler painted the room in 1876 for his patron Frederick Leyland. The room was originally designed by Thomas Jeckyll to display Leyland’s large collection of blue and white china, but Leyland was unhappy with the final result and gave Whistler the task of redecorating the room. The centerpiece of the room was to be Whistler's painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, and Whistler was authorized by Leyland to make minor changes to the room. However, while Leyland was in Liverpool, Whistler let his creativity run wild, commenting:

"Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it."[Wikipedia]

Whistler went on to exhibit the room to the press while Leyland was still away, and this combined with a disagreement over the payment for the work in the room lead to an irrevocable breach between the two. Despite this, Leyland keep the room as it was and used it for his china collection until his death in 1892.

In 1904, American industrialist and admirer Whistler’s work, Charles Lang Freer, purchased The Princess from the Land of Porcelain and the Peacock Room to go with it. He had the room shipped across the Atlantic and added it to his Detroit mansion.  When Freer died in 1919 he left his collection of art and artifacts to the Smithsonian, including the Peacock Room, and in 1923 they formed the bulk of the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art.

 The Freer Gallery is not as well known or popular as the other museums in the Smithsonian system, but it is well worth a visit. The gallery has a fascinating collection of Asian and Middle-Eastern art and archaeological artifacts, as well as a collection of Whistler’s paints. Looking the Peacock Room in the context of the collection as a whole, it really highlights the influence of Asian (specifically Japanese) art on the Aesthetic movement.

Whistler’s room is a riot of color and detail, which my poor, dim pictures do not do justice. When you first walk in the amount of detail is almost overwhelming. Your eyes don’t know where to focus.While The Princess from the Land of Porcelain is supposed to be the focal point, I found that the painting was upstaged by the murals on the other walls. However, as a whole the room cohesive; no one element is jarring or out of place. The room is very beautiful to look at, but I can’t imagine living in such an overwhelming space.

I think my favorite part of the room may have been the ceiling. The overlapping design looked like feathers, but it also reminded me of fish scales, and the light fixtures seemed to grow out of the design. Whistler might not have intended this but it seemed very naturalistic, almost a precursor to art nouveau. Also, the detailing on the side panels was beautiful. Such vivid colors! No part of the room is plain. Every piece of trim, every panel is textured, mottled, or in some way decorated to match the theme.


Overall, I say if you have a chance don’t miss out on this great piece of design history. I had heard of the Peacock Room before, but it wasn’t until right before our trip that I had any idea that it was housed in a branch of the Smithsonian. This was my 4th trip to the D.C. museums and I can’t believe I passed it all those times!

Posted: 9/4/2011 6:19:38 PM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: Aestheticism, travels
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