Harmony in Blue and Gold

This upcoming weekend is your last chance to ride up to Manhattan and check out the Elle Decor Modern Life Concept House. Located in the +Art condo development at 540 West 28th Street, “New York’s most design-forward house” features the interior designs of 10 of the magazine’s A-List “Designers to Watch” who have partnered with different product lines to “create a fresh approach to modern living”.

Not up to a trip to NYC?  Not a problem. You can view some of the house’s design features right here at the National Mall’s most underrated museum. Go to the Freer|Sackler Galleries (the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art) and see James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s Peacock Room, the magnificent masterpiece that features heavily in a Concept House room designed by Sara Story. According to her biography, Ms. Story’s style is influenced by a childhood in the Far East, as well as her travel experiences.

This is a picture of the door of Ms. Story’s room:

Photo credit: quintessenceblog.com

And this is a picture of The Peacock Room at the Freer, as painted by Whistler (check out the peacock on the left):

Before it was packed up and shipped to the Freer, the Peacock Room was originally the London dining room of Fredrick R. Leyland, a wealthy shipowner from Liverpool. Leyland had hired interior architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the room as a place to display his valuable collection of Chinese porcelain. As he neared the completion of the room, Jeckyll consulted with Whistler (who was also working on the house at the time) about some of the final details. Whistler offered to assist in some paint retouches and finishes. Leyland left London believing the work was basically done. Big mistake.

In his patron’s absence, Whistler was inspired to make bolder revisions. He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal, or imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He then gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks…

Whistler entertained visitors and amused the press in the lavishly decorated room, never thinking to ask permission of the owner of the house. His audacious behavior, coupled with a dispute over payment for the project, provoked a bitter quarrel between the painter and his patron. Leyland would not consent to pay the two thousand guineas that Whistler wanted: “I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it,” he wrote to the artist. Eventually Leyland agreed to half that amount, but he further insulted Whistler by writing his check in pounds, the currency of trade, when payment to artists and professionals was customarily made in guineas. A pound is worth twenty shillings and a guinea twenty-one so the already offensive sum was also smaller than expected.

Perhaps in retaliation, Whistler took the liberty of coating Leyland’s valuable leather with Prussian-blue paint and depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other on the wall opposite The Princess.  He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The poor and affronted peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler’s forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks “Art and Money or, The Story of the Room.” He obtained a blue rug to complete the scheme and titled the room Harmony in Blue and Gold. After concluding his work in March 1877, the artist never saw the Peacock Room again. **

It seems that Leyland liked Whistler’s design after all – either that or he didn’t want to spend more money on it.  He never altered the room from the way it looked when Whistler completed it, and he continued to display his porcelains there until his death in 1892. Twelve years later, the room was dismantled and displayed in a London art gallery. Soon after, railroad-car manufacturer Charles Lang Freer, who had recently acquired one of the Whistler paintings that hung in the room, purchased the entire Peacock Room and had it dismantled from the gallery and rebuilt in his Detroit home.  After Freer’s death 1919, the room was moved again to the newly created Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., where it has stood ever since.  A few extensive restorations later (through three moves the room’s physical structure had become highly unstable), and now everyone can enjoy this magical space.

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