When a home is sold, the new owners usually can’t wait to redecorate. Wallpaper, carpeting, paint, window treatments, and light fixtures are changed or updated, and the cycle is repeated with subsequent owners.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room remains essentially the same as when the artist designed the space as a dining room in 1876-77 for London shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland. Resplendent in hues of Prussian and peacock blue, the room included shutters with golden peacocks painted on them, a mural with two peacocks, swirling motifs of peacock feathers on the ceiling, and gilt shelves displaying blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Above the mantel was the centerpiece, Whistler’s painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.
Shimmering with gold and copper leaf, the room must have looked otherworldly as gaslight glistened on the surfaces. Whistler officially christened the space Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.
The home’s owner after Leyland saw nothing harmonious about it; in fact, she detested it. That’s when Detroit industrialist and art collector Charles L. Freer stepped in.
Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., and author of The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, says Freer initially was interested only in buying the shutters and mural, but the owner wanted to sell the entire room.
“Soon after Whistler died [in 1903], she decided to get rid of the room and probably realized she could get a lot of money for it,” Merrill says from Atlanta, where she teaches art history at Emory University. On Oct. 25, she will speak at the Detroit Institute of Arts about The Peacock Room in Freer’s Detroit home.
“Freer dragged his feet,” Merrill says about the purchase, because he knew he’d have to build an addition to his Ferry Avenue house to accommodate it.
But build on he did, and, in 1906, the room arrived in two shipments from England. Once it was reinstalled in Detroit, it caused a sensation. Journalists from around the country visited, as well as art lovers and the just plain curious. Merrill says the famously private Freer tried to accommodate most visitors.
“Once, there was a conference of hundreds of schoolteachers from Dayton, Ohio, and they asked to see the room. Freer said yes. Then some asked if they could bring their families, and he agreed. He set the whole day aside, and allowed 75 people in at a time.”
But Freer’s acquisition rankled some in Britain, who were miffed that an American bought a national treasure. Before the room was transported to Detroit, it had been dismantled and put on display at a London gallery, where the public could view it.
“People were upset,” Merrill says. “They thought it should have stayed in the country and gone to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Tate.” Ironically, although Whistler lived in England, he was an American. At 21, he left for Europe, but never returned to his native land.
Freer added his own touch to the Peacock Room by filling the gilt niches with Asian and Middle Eastern pottery, as well as pieces from Detroit’s own Pewabic Pottery.
Upon Freer’s death in 1919, he bequeathed his art collection — including the Peacock Room — to the Smithsonian Institution, where it’s on view today at the Freer Gallery of Art.
The room underwent a major renovation from 1989-93, under Merrill’s vigil. Years of dirt and patchy renovation work had dimmed its luster.
“Even back when Freer first saw the room, the pollution of London, with all the coal dust, had done its job. It was the dirtiest city in the world,” Merrill says.
Gradually, the room regained its harmony. “Almost every day, as conservators would remove layers of grime and overpaint, some new, glorious detail would come into view. I was very lucky to be there.” h
Merrill’s lecture is at 2 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Lecture Hall of the DIA. Free with museum admission. After the talk, visitors are invited to a reception and tour of the Freer house, one block north of the DIA, at 71 E. Ferry. $10. 313-872-1790.