James McNeill Whistler: The Peacock Room

Class Attends Cosi fan tutte by Mozart at Sarasota Opera.

Sarasota Opera House

Sarasota Opera House

Our class had the special treat to be able to attend Cosi fan tutte by Mozart at the Sarasota Opera House on February 4, 2016.  Thank you Sarasota Opera! 

Even though we did not meet for our class this past week, I wanted to include  JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER’s, [b. 1834 –d. 1903], The Peacock Room, c. 1876–1877.  If you have visited the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, you may recall walking through  magnificent rooms of the Astor Mansion Salon and Library.  The two 19th century historic interiors installed in Galleries 19 and 20 are from the Astor mansion originally situated at 840 Fifth Avenue at 61st St. in New York City. The home was built between 1893 and 1895 by the Gilded Age architect Richard Morris Hunt for Mrs. William Backhouse Astor and her son, Col. John Jacob Astor IV, following the death of her husband in 1892. John Ringling purchased these rooms at the 1926 sale of the residence prior to its demolition.  Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908), known as “The Mrs. Astor,” was one of the most powerful society women America ever produced, and was responsible for the “Four Hundred,” a list of families and individuals whose lineage could be traced back at least three generations.

Astor Salon at the Ringling Museum

Astor Salon at the Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

Born in Massachusetts, James McNeill Whistler went to Paris at the age of twenty-one with the ambition to become an artist. He established his professional life in London and never returned to his native land. Over the years, he became one of the most artistically progressive painters of the nineteenth century. As an expatriate, Whistler was not influenced by the American tendency to endow art with moral purpose. In fact, he went so far as to embrace the philosophy of aestheticism, or “art for art’s sake,” which recognizes beauty as the only justification for art. During the 1870s, at the height of his career, Whistler was concerned with the presentation of works of art. He designed frames for his paintings and sometimes even orchestrated the exhibitions in which they were displayed.

Peacock Room 1

The Peacock Room

His desire for an aesthetic that embraced everything was finally realized in the dining room he decorated for the London residence of the British ship-owner, Frederick Richards Leyland, his principal patron. That decoration, now known as the Peacock Room, strengthened Whistler’s reputation as an artist whose aesthetic flair went well beyond the boundaries of a picture frame. To Whistler’s way of thinking, the dining room should complement the frame of one of his own paintings, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which held the place of honor above the mantelpiece.

The Peacock Room at the Freer is exposed to the light on its' monthly shutter opening in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 21: Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain at center of the north wall of the Peacock Room at the Freer after its’ monthly shutter opening on March, 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Whistler had painted it a dozen years earlier, when he was seized by a passion for blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. According to his mother, he considered the porcelain among “the finest specimens of art,” and The Princess was conceived to celebrate the beauty of the figures that adorned it. Leyland himself possessed a large collection of blue and white china, and his dining room had been designed for its display, with an elaborate latticework of shelving that provided a beautiful “frame” for each pot.

Yet, Whistler was unsatisfied with Leyland’s room of porcelain, and with his patron’s permission he began to make modest changes to the original decoration. Eventually, his creativity ran wild. He went so far as to paint over costly gilt-leather wallhangings, creating an uninterrupted field of peacock blue above the shelving (which he gilded). By the time he had finished, every inch of the room was covered in his designs. Except for the greenish-blue walls, every surface shimmers with gold and copper leaf; even the places half-hidden by the shelving bear a rich, tapestry-like design to set off the gleaming surfaces of the porcelain. Whistler imagined the Peacock Room as a painting on a grand scale and in three dimensions, a work of art that could be entered through a door.

Peacock Room 4

The Peacock Room, Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C.

The overall aesthetic effect — which can never be adequately conveyed in words or pictures — has been likened to the beauty of a Japanese lacquer box. Although Whistler was famously disdainful of nature (its “song,” he complained, was almost always out of tune), he admitted that the natural world could sometimes serve as a source of decorative motifs and color schemes. For the Leyland dining room, he adopted the natural patterns and iridescent coloration of a peacock feather. But for the peacocks themselves, he found models in art, rather than nature. The magnificent, life-sized birds adorning the floor-to-ceiling shutters allude to the bird-and-flower prints of the Japanese artist Hiroshige; the pair of golden peacocks on the broad wall opposite The Princess are copied from the ornamental birds Whistler had seen adorning Japanese vases. The mural has a story to tell. Halfway through the project, Whistler quarreled with Leyland over payment for the decoration. Eventually he settled for half the amount he had originally demanded in exchange for Leyland’s promise to stay away while he finished the room to his satisfaction. Although Leyland would seem to have had the better part of that bargain, Whistler ensured that posterity would remember the offending patron as a rich man who couldn’t bear to part with his pennies, even in exchange for an immortal masterpiece. The proud peacock on the right, faintly ridiculous with his ruffled feathers, represents Leyland, whose fondness for ruffled shirts Whistler suggested with the silver feathers on his neck. At his feet lie the coins he had so carelessly cut out of Whistler’s fee. The put-upon bird on the left, crowned with a single silver feather, represents the artist, with his signature shock of white hair. Titled “Art and Money,” the Peacock Room mural was meant as a cautionary tale with a moral at the end — that riches may be spent, but beauty endures.

Have a good week. -Mrs. S

The Peacock Room 3 James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Harmony in Blue and Gold-The Peacock Room. 1876-77. The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Inst., Washington DC


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