The Peacock Room

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.

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14 responses to “The Peacock Room

  1. beautiful story…


  2. Gorgeous post, as always!

  3. OMG. I love that Jimmy Whistler! You know that the Peacock Room is reconstructed in the Freer Gallery (Smithsonian's asian collections). My favorite thing to do when in DC is to duck into the Freer and sit quietly in the Peacock Room.

  4. Having spent time inside the Peacock Room, I will say that it's impressive, but wish I could see it in the original house (or one like it), with natural lighting. As it is now, there's a strong feeling of artifice/staginess about it.The Japanese screens at the Freer are more my line; also other sections of their Whistler collection…

  5. …this stunning bird with a cry like Lazarus waking in his tomb.There is an area on the island of Oahu where wild peacocks still live. They're protected, partly because they're a symbol of the Hawaiian royal family.The older of my 2 brothers used to live in that valley. I visited him during peacock mating season, and slept very badly, due to the fact that peacock mating cries are, well… ear-splitting screams. They paraded around right outside the windows of the apartment where I was staying, trying to attract mates, for a week. (Probably longer, but I was there for a very short time.)So yes, they're lovely birds, but better admired from afar, or in quieter seasons. 😉

  6. Ishtar – you've whetted my appetite; I've been searching for the essay – I didn't know she raised peacocks – and have found references to it, "The King Of All The Birds", but nary a quote!
    $6 – how I envy you, to have such a wonder so near by! I would be overwhelmed, I think, but would visit again and again…content to sit and absorb.
    e2c – the entire Japonesque movement of the late 19th century manifested itself in many charming ways; Whistler's 'Nocturne' series is wonderful too, including the one where Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" (!)
    I know the peacock's call, and yes it is rather strident! I was visiting a castle many years ago and there were white ones patrolling the courtyard, crying 'who goes there' in no uncertain terms.

  7. What a great story. And what a sad person, this Leyland. I'd love to see the peacock room..they are such contradictory creatures, so beautiful yet so harsh.

  8. At least this room is still here for us, unlike that mural of Diego Rivera's (Rockefeller Center, was it?)…thanks for sharing it!

  9. More on Flannery O'Connor: yes, covers of her books are often adorned with peacock feathers. The piece I read is from a collection called "Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose." I think for FO peacock is the figure of grace–divine and nasty at the same time.

  10. 'divine and nasty'
    I love that combination, actually. It reminds me of powerful goddesses – it stands to reason that Hera, wife of Zeus, had her wagon pulled by peacocks!

  11. fascinating. and well told in that distinctive style of yours.

  12. at first I thought the beginning of your post was an excerpt from "Against Nature".

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