It’s quite laborious to restore a single table. It’s something quite different to apply the meticulous process to an entire, elaborate piece that’s over a century old.
In the case of the single Peacock Roomoriginally painted by James McNeill Whistler for the dining room of a London art patron, largely against his wishes, his latest gleaming restoration has just been reopened in the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art after months of work.
“This room is one of the masterpieces of late 19th century art and design,” says the museum’s curator of American art. Diana Greenwold. “It is a vivid reminder of the genius of James McNeill Whistler as well as a way to tell important stories about artists, patrons and the art market. We’re also using this space to start exploring more stories about Orientalism, appropriation and empire.
“We had to do it much more carefully in this space because of the historic painted walls and the fact that it is essentially an object,” said the museum curator. Jennifer Bosworth. “It’s like working inside an object.” It was the first major conservation in 30 years. With one small brush at a time, workers painstakingly cleaned and restored the ambitious work, which had sparked its own storm of controversy in its time, the results of which are also reflected on the walls.
The play, whose full title is Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, has as its centerpiece an earlier Whistler painting, with its own color-specific title, Pink and silver: the princess of the country of porcelain.
As such, the British shipping magnate Frederick Richard Leyland, wanted his dining room to have an intricate latticework frame of carved walnut shelves to show off his own collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain. original designer Thomas Jeckyll planned a room that highlighted the rose and silver of the painting, with a red border on the floor and 16th-century rose-painted leather wall hangings from the Tudor period of Henry VIII. Whistler was given free rein from the hall in 1877 when Jeckyll fell ill and Leyland left London to attend to business in Liverpool.
Whistler initially got permission to change the roses on the leather wall hangings to yellow, as he thought they clashed with the tones of his paint; and the addition of a wave pattern to the cornice and paneling. But the artist went further, becoming more elaborate as he went, creating a dazzling room-sized composition in blue and green with white glazing and gold leaf.
“Well, you know, I just painted,” Whistler wrote. “I continued, without drawing or sketching, it grew as I painted. And towards the end I got to such a point of perfection – putting every key in with such freedom – that when I got to the corner where I started, well, I had to repaint part of it, because the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold that develops, you know, I forgot everything in my joy!
“He went crazy and painted everything that Leyland didn’t know,” Bosworth says. “Leyland came back and was very unhappy, it was not at all what he had planned. And they had a big falling out.
Leyland called Whistler “an artistic Barnum”, according to Susan Hobbs, former curator of American art at the Freer Gallery. They argued over the price as well as the very different direction of the piece – and the fact that Whistler had welcomed people into the room to watch his work progress as the summer progressed. The original designer, Jeckyll, also had a severe adverse reaction, collapsing after seeing it and dying in an asylum three years later.
The artist-patron relationship between Leyland and Whistler was severed forever. But when the artist had the opportunity to return home when the shipbuilder was away, he finished the piece with an elaborate painting of two fighting peacocks, one of them weighed down with silver. His title : Art and money: or, the story of the bedroom.
He had painted a harsher reaction to the incident in an 1879 painting showing his former patron as a demonic peacock playing the piano, titled The Golden Crust: Eruption at Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor). By then, Whistler was deeply in debt, with Leyland being its main creditor.
Leyland, for his part, grew to accept the piece, keeping it intact until he sold the house. An art dealer exhibited it and attempted to sell it to Charles Lang Freer, a Whistler enthusiast who had previously purchased the Princess of the Land of Porcelain.
Freer said at the time that he had no use for the whole room – “I never liked the architectural design of the bookshelves and the ceiling,” he wrote in a cable to the dealer. But he later reconsidered, saying in a letter to Whistler’s sister-in-law and executor of Whistler’s estate that to be reunited with the original painting for the DC museum he was planning, maybe “the peacocks on the shutters and in the panels should be left to reign in glory and feel their pride as their creator intended.
Because of the hall’s construction – on a wooden trellis which made it easy to dismantle and ship – Freer rebuilt the Peacock Room first in his Detroit mansion after its purchase in 1906, carefully displaying his own rich collection of porcelain from Syria, Iran, Korea, China, Japan and even notable works from local Pewabic pottery in Detroit, the only piece of American decorative art Freer included in his bequest to the Smithsonian. Combining old works with Whistler’s paintings helped prove Freer’s belief that “all works of art belong together, regardless of their period.”
The newly reopened room in the form of an exhibition entitled “The Peacock Room is coming to America,” 99 years after the opening of the Freer Gallery appears as close as possible to how the museum’s founder originally displayed it, according to careful examination of 1908 photographs of Freer’s home cross-checked with Freer’s holdings.
“Many of these pieces were part of our collection,” says the restorer Ellen Chase. “So it was possible for our former American curator Lee Glazer to go through the photographs and identify with a number of other staff the pieces of the photographs so that we could correlate the 1908 images with the current collection and put them on the shelves. ”
There are about 250 pieces in all, most of which were in Freer’s original exhibit, Chase says. “There are some where you couldn’t tell because we had several pieces that were somewhat similar, but I have to say the majority of them are the ones that were identified from the photographs.”
Restoration of Peacock Room, then meant processing a large number of different materials. “We have leather, we have wood, we have canvas,” says Bosworth. “There is gilding and there is painting. So a lot is going on and a lot of things can react in different ways to changes in the environment.
This was particularly the case for the shutters, which in recent years have been opened one day a month to let the sun in, to give a glimpse of how the room would look during the day. The opening of the shutters has become a big event. “People would pull out their phones and get a video of you opening the windows,” Chase says. But that also meant wear and tear on the shutters, painted inside with perhaps the fanciest peacocks.
Now, given the necessary restoration, the Peacock Room at 145, quite preens.
“It’s beyond a historic room; it’s beyond a painting,” says Chase. “The piece itself is the work of art.”
And underlying the beauty is a pretty compelling story. “It would definitely be on social media now like this great splashy story of artist and patron,” Bosworth said.
But it also shows a moment of inspiration for Whistler. “It’s like he gave himself to this room and he thought Leyland was going to love it. And then when he was upset for various reasons, and I also understand Leyland’s reaction to a certain extent,” says Bosworth. “He was so angry and when you see the results of his anger all over the wall. So in the room now you have this in-depth case of creating this experience and then you see his emotional reaction at the end. It’s a pretty nice contradiction.
“The Peacock Room Comes to America” is open at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The Peacock Room shutters are open on the third Thursday of every month.