The Peacock Room by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 – July 17, 1903)
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is Whistler’s masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. He painted the paneled room in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf. Painted in 1876–77, it now is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style. Unhappy with the first decorative result of the original scheme designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881), Frederick Leyland left the room in Whistler’s care to make minor changes, “to harmonize” the room whose primary purpose was to display Leyland’s china collection. Whistler let his imagination run wild, however: “Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom… And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it.” He completely painted over 16th century Cordoba leather wall coverings first brought to Britain by Catherine of Aragon that Leyland had paid £1,000 for.
Upon returning, Leyland was shocked by the “improvements.” Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that the important relationship for Whistler was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland’s home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron; one holds a paint brush and the other holds a bag of money.
Whistler is reported to have said to Leyland, “Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.” Adding to the emotional drama was Whistler’s fondness for Leyland’s wife, Frances, who separated from her husband in 1879. Another result of this drama was Jeckyll, who, so shocked by the first sight of ‘his’ room, returned home and was later found on the floor of his studio covered in gold leaf; he never recovered and died insane three years later.