Saturday, March 12, 2011

Controversy in Blue and Gold

Most of you probably know of James McNeill Whistler only by his portrait of his Mother. I'll be honest, up until a week ago, that's the only thing I knew (or cared to know) by him. I had no idea that the man who painted the exceptionally famous, static, black and gray portrait of his mother was well adept at painting "Harmony" portraits, "Nocturne" landscapes, and stirring up controversy like you wouldn't believe.

This is the Rose and Silver: Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1864. Isn't she lovely? She was one of a couple of works Whistler produced during a time when the exotic orient was incredibly popular (due to Commodore Matthew Perry creating new open networks with Japan in March of 1854). It was for shipping mogul and patron Frederick Leyland for over the fire place in his dining room, which housed his impressive collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain.

Here's a picture of the portrait in the dining room. Look at all of those porcelain wares! I wish I could have found the watercolor our professor showed us in class of what the room looked like when the painting was first introduced to it. It looked considerably different than its end result. One thing of note was that on the walls flanking the portrait were painted panels of leather that hypothetically belonged to the dowry of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. We're not really sure if that's true or not, but that's the story. :)

The room was mostly done in browns and neutral colors so the vibrant porcelain would be emphasized.

Anyway. The flowers on these leather panels did not match Whistler's glorious centerpiece for the room, so Leyland hired Whistler to repaint them in colors to match the portrait and went along his merry way on vacation. Whistler, with his free reign of the dining room decided that he did not like the aesthetic layout that his glorious creation was now housed in. So, he decided to change EVERYTHING.

This is what he did.

From browns and pinks and neutrals to dark teal and gold leaf. Quite a change. Mr. Leyland came home and understandably blew a gasket. All he wanted was the flowers repainted and his whole dining room was redone. Not only that, but upon Leyland's return, Whistler sent him a message asking him for 2,000 guineas as payment (Guineas = Pounds plus shillings). Leyland sent him (I believe) only 600 pounds (Thank you, Anna, for checkin' me!). Pounds are an insult because they're typically what you would pay your grocer or your craftsman, while guineas are paid to a gentleman. Whistler took that as the slap in the face it was intended to be.

For some reason, Leyland continued to allow Whistler access to this "Peacock Room" as he went out of town again. Whistler invited in the press, visitors, art critics, etc. and finished the room in his conceived peacock aesthetic. On the wall opposite the Princess, Whistler painted dueling peacocks (potentially in an allegory for his controversy with Leyland...the more aggressive peacock is standing on a pile of shillings).

As the result of this conflict (and the trial to follow...Who was in the right?), Whistler went bankrupt and was forced to evacuate his beloved home. But luckily for us, the Peacock Room still survives in the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. today.


  1. LOVE!! Whistler = original badass. I just saw a portrait of him with the white curl of hair and it cracked me up.
    I think the shillings/pounds thing was that he got paid 600 pounds, which was an insult because pounds were what you paid your grocer and craftsmen, whereas guineas is what you paid gentlemen, but I'm not sure. :)

  2. THANK YOU. That makes much more sense now and because you're a genius, I'll make the edits. :D