The portrait is quite familiar—a severe looking woman in a straight-backed chair, with her stern gaze fixed upon something out of picture. This portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black, is the best-known work of the great American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler. In fact, it’s probably more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” Because it is painted with a dark, rather drab palette, it would be understandable to think Whistler did not prioritize color, but the truth is quite the contrary. Whistler delighted in bold, vivid hues, as exemplified in his exquisite The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which now serves as the centerpiece of the Peacock Room in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain features Christina Spartali, a noted beauty of the 1860s whom all the artists of the time were clamoring to paint. Whistler portrays her wearing a rich gold kimono tied with a brilliant red belt. She holds a fan in her hand and has a pensive, wistful look on her face. Whistler created the composition between 1863 and 1865. Though when it was completed, Spartali’s father refused to purchase it. Rather, it went on to be exhibited at the Paris Salon and then at Gambart’s French Gallery in London. It was not until several years later that the portrait was sold. The buyer, Frederick R. Leyland, hung the painting in the dining room of his London home, where he also displayed an impressive collection of Chinese porcelain.
Originally, Leyland had commissioned renowned architect Thomas Jeckyll to design the room’s motif. Since Leyland wanted Whistler’s painting to be hung in such a prominent position, Jeckyll consulted the artist himself about the optimal color scheme. During the design period, Jeckyll fell quite ill, and stopped overseeing the work. Since Leyland was away on business, Whistler stepped in, taking creative lead on the project.
To his credit, Whistler wrote to Leyland and promised him a “gorgeous surprise.” But when Leyland returned back, the only promise kept was the “surprise.” The embellishments and design details were far more extensive and far more expensive than Leyland had ever anticipated. “I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it,” he scolded Whistler.
Leyland refused to pay the full amount that Whistler charged. With swollen pride and a rising temper, Whistler decided to add even more imagery to the room. First, he painted an expensive leather wall with a coat of blue paint. Then, he painted two more peacocks on the wall, flanking the portrait. The birds faced each other, as if in confrontation—about to fight. Whistler even gave a name to the mural, entitling it Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. According to the Smithsonian’s Lee Glazer, after Whistler finished the room in 1877, Leyland told him he would be whipped if he ever showed face at the house again. And perhaps because of financial constraints, Leyland kept Whistler’s work.
After Leyland passed away in 1892, Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer and avid fan of Whistler, acquired the Peacock Room—which was basically just a series of decorated panels and latticework shelving within a substructure. He had it moved and installed in his Detroit mansion. After he passed, he left his entire Whistler collection, including the room, to the Smithsonian institution, and everything was subsequently moved once more, to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian museum.