Lifestyle & Culture

Shedding Light on the Peacocks

April 16, 2014


The Peacock Room at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art. / Photo by Neil Greentree.

The Peacock Room at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. / Photo by Neil Greentree.

IT’S ALMOST a rite of passage when you move to Washington. Between crises at your new job, you explore the vast federal treasure trove of DC’s museums. You hit the biggies—the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian’s Air and Space and Natural History—then start exploring the gems that are hidden in plain sight—the National Portrait Gallery, the Phillips Collection, etc.

And then one day you go to the Freer and Sackler galleries. And at one end of the two attached museums on the Mall, you discover the Peacock Room, which is revealing a new truth about itself.

The story behind the room is almost as fetching as the room itself. It was the London dining room of a Liverpool shipping magnate who wanted the room to be a backdrop for his collection of Chinese porcelain and an exotic portrait by James McNeill Whistler. Yes, that Whistler, the one with the mother.

Rather than simply supply a color scheme for the walls that would give his own painting pride of place in the room, Whistler embellished the walls and the window shutters with peacocks and other design elements, promising his patron, Frederick Leyland, “a gorgeous surprise.” The surprise, besides being decoration that could be said to overwhelm the portrait and the porcelain, was also far more expensive than agreed to. When Leyland agreed to pay only half the cost, an angry Whistler painted two more peacocks looking as if they were about to fight and strewed the wall around them with painted silver coins. He also painted over a leather wallcovering with a vivid Prussian blue. That was in 1877.

Whistler was banned from the house after that. Following Leyland’s death, American railroad-car manufacturer Charles Lang Freer acquired the room’s portrait and finally the room itself, installing them in his Detroit mansion. He bequeathed both to the Smithsonian about a decade before his death.

As exotic as the room is, a visit can be a moody affair, the inky blues and blue-greens of the walls absorbing what light there is. But since 2011, on the Third Thursday of the month, the Freer flings open the embellished shutters to the room from noon to 5:30 pm. If the weather cooperates, on Thursday, April 17, visitors will be able to see Whistler’s work, with all the subtleties of color that are visible only in natural sunlight. They will even be able to see the embossed pattern of the leather wallcovering Whistler painted over in his fit of pique at Leyland.

The Freer is located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW, on the National Mall. Go to for more information.

Nancy McKeon

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