The Peacock Room

In 1876 James McNeill Whistler, an American artist living in London, was invited by his friend and patron Frederick Leyland, a shipping magnate from Liverpool, to suggest a color scheme for the woodwork of his dining room, which had been decorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll. While Leyland and his family were away for the summer, Whistler’s imagination took flight. Promising his patron a “gorgeous surprise,” he completely transformed the room, covering nearly every inch with brilliant blue and gold patterns derived from the plumage of peacocks.

When Leyland saw the room the following fall, his reaction was not what Whistler had expected. Leyland thought Whistler had taken egregious liberties, and he refused to pay the artist his full fee. Whistler, devastated by Leyland’s lack of appreciation, responded by painting a vengeful mural on the south wall of the room. Pointedly titled Art and Money, it depicts the painter and patron as fighting peacocks. Whistler and Leyland each felt betrayed. Their quarrel over the room grew increasingly heated and more personal. Finally, Leyland banned Whistler from ever seeing the Peacock Room again.

Despite the broken friendship, Leyland continued to dine in Whistler’s Peacock Room, which was quickly recognized by the Victorian art world as a masterpiece of aesthetic decoration. Some years after Leyland’s death in 1892, museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased the room and reinstalled it in his Detroit mansion, where he filled its shelves with his own array of Asian pottery. It was reassembled in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920, and it has been on permanent display since the museum opened to the public in 1923.

As one of the great treasures of the Freer Gallery, the Peacock Room has been carefully preserved for future generations of museum goers. Its complicated stories of art, money, and animosity have been absorbed into a more decorous “story of the beautiful,” as Whistler would have described it. Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre suggests what might ultimately have become of the Peacock Room if it had not been acquired by Freer and cared for in a museum.

View a panorama of the Peacock Room »
Go behind the scenes of the Peacock Room »
Explore: Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre »

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The dining room is really alive with beauty — brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree....There is no room in London like it....
–James Whistler, 1876

Once friends. Forever enemies.
–Whistler, 1889

The Peacock Room exposes the tensions that can arise when new money hires outsize egos....
Art News

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