Recreation of Whistler’s Peacocks


I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to replicate a pair of Whistler’s famed peacocks.

The Peacock Room was originally painted in 1877 by Whistler for a less-than-appreciative London shipping merchant.   Though Whistler was stiffed on the bill, he proclaimed rather prophetically that his peacocks and their room would outlive the deadbeat capitalist. Which they have. In 1904, a Detroit, Michigan-based railroad tycoon shipped the entire room to America to install inside his own home and then later bequeathed it to The Smithsonian Museum’s Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., where it has been on display since 1924.

It’s a fascinating tale of the obsessed artist versus his filthy lucre patron and I’ve written a heavily researched, unscholarly overview that can be accessed here.  

Why the fascination?

For me, it goes back to first grade, when I took a fist punch to my eye in a scrap over one of his paintings—a real shiner–swollen and black as the skirt Whistler painted in the portrait of his mother. That story is included, too, in the aforementioned link. I’m a veritable font of the rollicking, sardonic and arcane and James Abbott McNeill Whistler was never short of any of those suspect qualities, either.

But First, My Mission

I intended to paint only a simple wash of green over gold-colored gilding. Whistler-lite, like so:

Panel door detail from Whistler's Peacock Room.
Panel door detail from Whistler’s Peacock Room.

green door

However, I deviated and went so far as to paint my own rendition of his shutter-door peacocks onto the frame of my front room entryway, one peacock facing the other. I took photographs along the way. The entire project took about a week to complete.

shutter peacocks
Whistler’s original shutter door painted peacocks.

Materials Used:

1 quart of forest green high gloss house paint, easily found at any hardware store.

3 books of Gold Leaf.  It’s not the real thing but a brass alloy.

1 fan brush. This inexpensive 4-piece brush set includes a fan brush plus a #2 sized brush similar to what I used.

(4) small rounded point-tipped brushes. I used Loew-Cornell in sizes 0, 1, 2, 9.

1 angled trim brush from any hardware store.

1 large flat tipped brush – like a 30 Nylon flat brush, used to dab and smooth leaf into place along with the fan brush. What I used was inexpensive, comparable to this brush.

An official gilder’s brush if you are feeling particularly spendy. Have a look for the fun of it or…or in case you do want to get serious about it.

1 jar of Winsor & Newton Japan Gold Size Varnish  (This is for painting small decorative areas and using leaf.)

1 spray can of Speedball Mona Lisa 6-Ounce Spray Adhesive for Metal Leaf  (This is easier to use if gilding a large surface area.)

1 spray can of Mona Lisa Spray Sealant for Metal Leaf

1 mini paint roller with accompanying paint pan, easily found at any hardware store.

1 roll of painter’s tape

1 set of cotton gloves

1 bag of cotton rags or 1 torn up old cotton t-shirt

plenty of newspaper or a drop cloth

tack cloth

5 gallons of crazy (No, you cannot buy that. It must be earned.)

Day 1: I taped the periphery of the white, wooden frame and painted both sides forest green. One coat of paint wasn’t enough, nor was two.

Day 2: I painted a 3rd coat of forest green onto the frame and waited the requisite four hours’ worth of drying time before applying metal leaf.


Confession: I’ve never worked with metal leaf before.   If you’ve ever seen Will Ferrell rolling around on the floor with a ball of string and an air of haplessness, then you get the idea of how I was well I was coping. Metal leaf is treacherously floaty and delicate and it tears easily. I had the terrace doors flung open for ventilation but was forced to shut them to keep out the breezes. Then I had to learn how to apply leaf without breathing. Even the subtle puff of one’s breath is enough to set the leaf to floating away tauntingly in mid-air. Fortunately, I was going for that distressed look. And I was genuinely distressed. Consider it Method Artwork.

I learned later some Dutch gilders who belong to a guild of gilders (paid in guilders!) use a technique where they run a brush through their hair first. They use this charged brush to then gently pick up a piece of metal leaf. There seems to be some confusion as to whether running the brush through the hair imbues the bristles with a jolt of static electricity or whether it’s one’s own hair oils that help stabilize the leaf for placement.

No matter the reason, running a fan brush through your hair does tame the leaf and help with placing and applying the gilding. I wore cotton gloves to handle the leaf to avoid any sweaty smudging and smooshing. There are professional gilding brushes out there but they cost two month’s worth of cat food. I used both my fan brush and large flat-tipped brush to gently dab and smooth the leaf into place.

Who on earth leafs things with metal and why? How did this come about? The ancient Egyptians applied gold to furniture and tombs in tinfoil-thick layers with an organic adhesive as early as what seems to be a generally-agreed upon guess of 3000 B.C.   The Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, mentions the use of both egg white and mercury in gilding techniques circa 77-79 B.C. in his tome, Natural History. Some genius was probably thinking, “I can fool people into thinking this object is made of solid gold with gilding!” Maybe they just had a magpie’s attraction to all things shiny.

Gilding makes anything look opulent and the real thing, of course, is resistant to the elements. Some have gone as far as to season their food with it.   Here’s an interesting article on the culinary use of gold leaf in New York City’s satanically-priced “Douche Burger.”   $666 will get you a gold leaf and lobster burger straight off the Douche truck.

Notice that I’ve used the term metal leaf earlier. What I used isn’t real gold. I would hate to tally how much would be blowing in the wind if those little flakes and crumbs were real gold. I saw this for real once in Istanbul on a private tour of an ancient han where gold smelters still followed a millennial-old technique of producing gold bricks inside a smelting room the size of a hall closet. Their dust, when swept from the floor at the end of the day, added up to over $10,000, they said. My dust at home, sadly, goes straight into the trash.

But I digress. Vermeil is the official term that refers to silver leaf and cheaper gold-like metals. The stuff I am using “Dutch metal,” is what Whistler used, a type of brass that is an alloy heavy on copper with a small percentage of zinc.

Day 3. I faced the stark realization that one packet of metal leaf covers about 5’ of frame and wraps 12” around. Aspiring gilders note: read your packaging carefully. 720 inches square covers less frame than assume footage. I made a quick artistic decision to go for a yin-yang look of positive and negative space with the leaf against the dark frame. At first glance, it may look as if a kindergartner troweled on gold frosting but those wrinkles did iron out beautifully with the gentle smoothing of a cotton-gloved finger. See below:

This is where the 5 gallons of crazy comes into play.   I decided to paint a peacock against the interior of one frame. I considered creating a stencil but then thought, nah, too much work. Instead, I used, as reference, a page from Lionel Lambourne’s The Aesthetic Movement, that had a nicely blown up color plate of the peacock shutter, and simply painted freehand. I came to understand why Whistler wrote to his friend, the printmaker Joseph Pennell, regarding his peacock design, “I just painted as I went on…it grew as I painted!”

Day 4. Confession #2: it is horrible to paint on metal leaf. The paint smears around thinly and loosy-goosey-like and I wished that my lines were more neatly defined. I probably could have stood to use the smallest, finest brush possible and thought I was using such a brush, a #1 Loew-Cornell liner brush. A #0 would have worked better. It’s incredibly challenging to control the paint application.

I also learned the hard way to not rest the heel of my hand against the surface of any gilding, so that my hot paws wouldn’t leech off any gilding in spots, which it did. Painting precise versions of peacocks came not through carefully-designed, surgical approach but through gutsy strokes of a brush dripping thickly with irrevocable gobs of paint that speckled my clothing. I figured if my peacock came out looking like a turkey drumstick, I would rag-roll the entire mess and be damned. I had newspaper on the floor for protection and landed a couple drops on myself as badges of glee. The cat was spared stripes of any green, in spite of her curiosity.

Day 5. I touched up both peacocks to cover the thinned-out areas of paint.   I applied new gilding over some patchy spots. Then I laid down another coat of forest green around the trim to cover up any stray splotches of gilding along the edges. I also rag-rolled green paint over the gilded base of the frame for a mottled, marbled look. Rag-rolling is just as it sounds—you dip a balled-up rag into your paint tray and bunch all that drippy mess straight onto the gilding. Loads of fun.

Where the gilding fades into the rag rolling and vice-versa. The light switch plate is by Californian artist Judy Evans.*
Where the gilding fades into the rag rolling and vice-versa. The light switch plate is by Californian stained glass artist Judy Evans.*


Day 6. I applied a decorative motif of gilding against areas of the dark green painted frame. I thought I might be able to get away with using a small bottle of gold metallic paint for this purpose but the metallic paint came out looking flat and dull against the gold leaf’s incomparable shine and texture. Instead, I painted sizing (the type of glue used for the leaf) in a decorative pattern against a portion of the dark green, slapped leaf on it, waited for it to dry and then brushed off the remainder. This process turned out to be even messier and more challenging than painting the green over the gilded panels.



Day 7. I neatened up the lines of the gilded decorative motif by painting green paint in between. Four hours later, I sealed the work with an application of Mona Lisa Spray Sealer on the gilded parts to protect the leaf from fading and discoloration.

butterflies       All done, happy dance!







* * *

*Judy Evans made that stained glass light switch plate for me.  Click here to view her work.


  1. I didn’t know you were an artist. How creative you are and such an interesting writer! Thanks for including my switch plate – it looks beautiful with your artwork!

    1. Thank you, Judy! Everyone remarks on the work you did and thank you. It’s a beautiful improvement on the horrible little cracked plastic, wall-paint dribbled thing of the ages that needed to be replaced. Much appreciated!

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