DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, May 3, 2013

Light Makes The Peacock Room Birthday Bright

If you are a Smithsonian art institution, how do you celebrate your 90th birthday? Well, in the case of the Freer Gallery, which achieved that milestone yesterday, you throw open the decorated shutters of your Peacock Room for 5 hours, letting the bright sunshine reveal the beauty of the blue and gold room designed by famed American artist James Whistler.

Even before it arrived at the Freer, which opened in 1923, the Peacock Room had an intriguing history. In 1876, English shipping magnate James Leyland commissioned prominent British architect Thomas Jekyll to design a special space to display his blue and white Quing dynasty Chinese porcelain collection.

One of the centerpieces for the room was to be Whistler's painting The Princess from the Land of
Porcelain. Jekyll consulted Whistler, who agreed to work on the room, adding designs including 2 gold peacocks on the wall opposite his Princess piece. However, Whistler far acceeded Leyland's original budget and after he finished the project in 1877, was told he would be horse-whipped if he ever appeared at the house again.

After Leyland's death in 1892, the entire Peacock Room, now considered an art masterpiece, was purchased by Detroit railroad car manufacturer and Whistler collector Charles Lang Freer. It was shipped to America in 27 huge crates and reassembled as an addition to Freer's mansion. Freer, after whom the Smithsonian gallery of Asian art is named, used the room to house his extensive collection of more than 250 blue and earth-toned pieces of Asian pottery. Freer donated the room and all its contents to the institution in 1906, 13 years before his own death and it was once again dismantled and moved to Washington..

As a collector, Freer believed that all works of art go together, whatever their period. Designers of the Freer Gallery decided to fittingly locate Whistler's imaginative interior between the galleries of Chinese and American art, embodying both Freer's philosophy and the meeting of East and West.

To protect the paintings and decor, the shutters, also designed by Whistler, are normally kept shut, which made yesterday's opening special.  However, if you missed the occasion, the Peacock Room is filled with natural light when the shutters are opened on the 3rd Thursday of each month from noon until 5:30 p.m.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to learn more about the Peacock Room before a visit, there are many websites on the subject. However, if you would like some more old-fashioned learning, the Freer suggests 3 books:

  • The Peacock Room Comes to America by Lee Glazer
  • The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography by Linda Merrill and
  • The Princess and the Peacocks, or the Story of a Room by Linda Merrill and Sarah Ridley

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