On four walls he painted a glittering, gilded cacophony, golden feathers dripping down leather walls, wings that panted against the ceiling, multitudes of patterns that made a mockery of empty space.
Peacocks make human noises; they scream and cry in jagged, lonely tones. But nature apologized to the male of the species for this atonality by providing him with iridescent rainbows that glistened and rippled as he moved, with an aurora borealis glowing from his feathers. Painters, and all aficionados of color, love his betrayal of earthiness, his irresponsible exhibitionism. He was seemingly made for negligence and beauty.
Beardsley drew skirts of peacock's tails that curled around the ankles, and clouds of feathers that breathed over Salome's shoulder:
Wilde made the peacock a symbol of languor and decadence; James MacNeil Whistler dedicated an entire room to this stunning bird with a cry like Lazarus waking in his tomb.
In 1876 Frederick R. Leyland commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room. Leyland's preferences were serious and symmetrical and he should have known better than to let such an artistic sprite into his home.
Using pots full of gold metallic leaf, he covered the ceiling and panels of the walls in a thin layer of liquid metal, the alloy that began humbly as grains rolling in the bellies of streams and rivers. He then chose one color and investigated its darknesses, chosing its varied shadows as carefully as if they were the newest silks from Lyons. This palette of blue – prussian, cobalt and indigo – was used to sew a textile of feathers that flowed with impatient currents, wings that were as lush and stiff as brocaded draperies, tiny aristocratic heads poised on necks a swan would envy.
Four peacocks were created: four golden tapestries embroidered into the walls; four gardens clipped into a manicured maze that branched into gilded tangles; four streams of light siphoned from the sun and diluting that bright star. He called his glowing aviary: "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room".
In a creative thrill Whistler wrote to Leyland, telling him that his dining room was "really alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree".
Leyland hated it. He hated the sunburst of feathers that blazed across his dark room like a sunset caught in a bottle. He hated the tendrils of plumes that charted burnished rivers from wall to wall. He hated the effete delicacy of the poised and posing birds. He hated their inescapable loveliness.
He hated Whistler's price.
There was a violent quarrrel – not surprising with two such high examples of ego – and Leyland eventually agreed to pay…half of Whistler's stated amount. He intensified the insult by paying in pounds instead of guineas. Pounds were the currency of trade, not of artists and other professionals. Furthermore, in the 1870's, a pound was worth twenty shillings, with the guinea twenty-one. Whistler lost the arguement, lost money and lost face.
But he got the last laugh.
He gained access into the offending room and painted one more masterpiece. It was a confrontation between two peacocks, frozen in the movements of an angry ballet: one standing with its feet straddling a pile of silver shillings, its throat a path of aggressive ruffles, alluding to Leyland's favored ruffled shirts. The other peacock, recoiling before its rich and greedy rival, has a silver crest feather resembling the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler's forehead. This altercation was called, "Art and Money, or, The Story of the Room."
This was finished in 1877. Whistler never stepped foot in the room again.