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The Tale Behind D.C.’s Dazzling Peacock Room

Curator Lee Glazer shares this legacy of American artistry and patronage in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

The Peacock Room, the renowned interior decoration by American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler, has had a dynamic history. Its story began simply enough, when a Victorian shipping magnate decided to use the space to showcase his collection of Chinese ceramics. The narrative took an unexpected turn when an American artist was consulted on suitable room colors, and its legacy was secured when an art collector from Detroit brought the Peacock Room to America.

Originally this was the dining room in the London mansion of ship owner Frederick Leyland (1832–1892) of Liverpool. Leyland wanted to transform his home in the Kensington section of London into a palace of art, and he hired architect Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881) to design the room and its lattice shelves to showcase his blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.

Jeckyll asked James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) for advice on an appropriate color scheme for the door. Inspired by the delicate patterns and vivid colors of the ceramics on display, Whistler entirely redecorated the room in 1876 and 1877 as a “harmony in blue and gold.” The room’s final brilliance was more than Leyland had anticipated, and he and Whistler were soon locked in a bitter, prolonged quarrel. Whistler never saw the Peacock Room again.

Whistler painting in the Peacock Room
Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain,” 1863-65, adorns one end of the Peacock Room (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian)

When Leyland died in 1892, his porcelain collection was dispersed at auction, and his house, including the Peacock Room, was sold. The new owner, Blanche Watney, decided to sell the Peacock Room after she realized it could be taken apart and reassembled. Word of an impending sale reached the press, and reporters in both England and the United States speculated that the renowned room would attract an equally famous buyer. One New York newspaper, for instance, reported that art collector and financier J. P. Morgan, the so-called King of Wall Street, had bought the Peacock Room.

However, it was actually bought by Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), who had acquired a comparatively modest fortune in the business of manufacturing railroad cars and was known in the art world as America’s foremost collector of the work of Whistler. Freer later confessed that he had purchased the room out of a sense of “pleasant duty” to Whistler. 

Freer had it dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in twenty-seven crates. Delivered to his mansion in Detroit, it was reassembled and its shelves eventually filled with more than 250 ceramics from Asia. Although he was interested in each piece, Freer was equally concerned with the ceramics’ formal relationships to one another and to the Peacock Room.

Asian ceramics in the Peacock Room
Asian ceramics fill the Peacock Room shelves. (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian)

Freer eventually made the room his own, using it as a staging area for his own splendid collection of Asian ceramics and as an aesthetic laboratory for various objects, such as antique books and ancient Chinese jades and bronzes. He entertained students, friends, and fellow collectors in the space, making “quiet comparisons” among the room’s decorations, his Asian antiquities and Whistler’s painted Nocturnes. He kept rare biblical manuscripts—now known as the Washington Codex—in a fireproof safe behind the room’s leaded-glass door.

Pleased with the unexpected but harmonious aesthetic relationships, Freer commissioned photographer George R. Swain to document the room in 1908. Those images form the basis of the current reinstallation, which underscores Freer’s belief that “all works of art go together, whatever their period.” That faith in cross-cultural harmonies achieved its ultimate expression in the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened in 1923 as the Smithsonian Institution’s first museum dedicated to the fine arts. There the Peacock Room remains, fittingly located between galleries of Chinese and American art.

Excerpted from “The Peacock Room Comes to America” (2012), by Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, available in Smithsonian museum shops.