Friends have been asking me about the peacocks I painted and how I came to be an encyclopedic raconteur of all things Whistler so I figured this write-up was in order. As I’ve defended the artist, albeit unknowingly, since the age of six, it’s not surprising that I’ve accumulated many stories about the man…and his peacocks. Sometimes a childhood black eye can do that.
Here is a quick sketch of his career, leading up to the story of his infamous Peacock Room. And then some.
The family relocated to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1843, when Tsar Nicholas I appointed Whistler, Sr. to oversee the construction of a railroad line between St. Petersburg and Moscow. During this time, young Jamie Whistler took art lessons from the Russian Imperial Academy of Art, which were interrupted on more than one occasion by bouts with rheumatic fever. Whistler, Sr. completed construction of the railroad and died unexpectedly from a heart attack, probably precipitated by a recent round of cholera. He was only 48.
Widowed Anna and her children returned to Lowell. She urged her oldest son to follow after his father’s footsteps with an appointment to West Point Military Academy. But James Whistler proved to be an undisciplined smartass. Initially, his bad behavior was forgiven out of sympathy for the loss of his father. He continued to rack up demerits, ranging from not cutting his hair to failing to make his bed to neglecting to show up for class.
General Robert E. Lee, who was head of West Point, tried his best to keep the boy in school. Eventually Lee had to accept that he was running out of pardons and it was necessary to let Whistler go. Whistler later told his friends that his final blow at West Point had been his failure to properly answer a question on an oral exam in chemistry when asked if silicon was a solid, liquid or gas.
“Had silicon been a gas, I would have been a general by now,” he joked.
At 18, Whistler landed employment to draw maps of the U.S. coastline for the military, a task that allowed him to learn some etching techniques. But the work bored him. He drew sea monsters and naked mermaids in the margins and he showed up late for work repeatedly, especially toward wintertime, when the thought of getting out of bed and walking to work seemed particularly onerous. When his mother chided him and urged that he do better, Whistler insisted that he never showed up late to work–that in fact, the office was in the sordid habit of opening too early.
Whistler claimed that he was able to sell a couple of early sketches, which liberated him from map-drawing hell and allowed him the stamp on his passport that translated to, “See, ya, mom!”
A more likely story, is that, at age 21, James Whistler came into an annual stipend through his father’s estate, which provided him with just enough money to permit him to vamoose to the Land of the Can-Can.
When young Whistler landed in Paris, he rented a cheap room at the L’Hotel Corneilles, located in the Left Bank. (Located at 4 Rue des Moulins, James Joyce later wrote Ulysses in this very same Hotel of Crows.) Whistler specifically chose Paris in order to experience la vie boheme and to become a fully-fledged artist. And he was already imbued with a cockiness that made him declare he wasn’t going to take no stinkin’ lessons from nobody. Except for maybe one halfway tolerable, patient instructor and Swiss painter named Gleyre, who taught him to draw from memory. Whistler furthered his studies by holing himself up inside The Louvre for hours on end to copy various paintings by the Old Masters. Rembrandt was his favorite. Hogarth, too, had been one of his other childhood artistic influences after his older half-sister Debo brought him a book of his illustrations to keep him amused when he was recovering from rheumatic fever.
Other French artists who traipsed through The Louvre became curious about this strange American with the big hat. Thus Whistler came to make friends with artists that included Henri Fantin-Latour, Gustave Courbet, sculptors Just Becquet and Charles Drouet.
Whistler made many forays between London and Paris, sometimes to evade an outbreak of disease but most times, to outrun the women in his life. One of his amorous Parisian models tore up his drawings in a fit. If a jilted lover wasn’t enough trouble, his mother crossed the ocean for a visit and came across a pile of his artwork that depicted improperly undressed figures. She burned them for being, in her opinion, inappropriate. Whistler found refuge in London with Debo and her husband Seymour Haden, who was a talented etcher of some repute as well as a surgeon by trade. Whistler’s travels between Paris and London was marked by disappointment as his paintings were rejected by both London’s Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. His portfolio continued to accumulate with his “French Set” and “Thames Set” etchings and some critical success with his paintings, At the Piano and Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. Whistler soon aligned himself with the British Pre-Raphaelites, including the poet and painter, Dante Rossetti, who loved to keep peacocks and wombats as domesticated pets. (Rossetti’s noisy peacocks lasted until his landlord inserted a clause in the following year’s lease, effectively banning the birds.) Whistler fit in well with the avant-garde Pre-Raph crew, as this gang’s artwork, was also passed over frequently by the more conventional committees and academies shunted to Le Salon des Refusés.
Whistler met Rossetti at the time when Rossetti was still mourning his wife Lizzie Siddal’s suicidal overdose of laudanum. Worse, Rossetti was contemplating exhuming her grave in order to retrieve a notebook of poetry he had written for her and then buried with her inside her casket in a fit of grief. He was now cursing his impetuousness as it dawned on him that he could have <em>published</em> the poetry in her memory. Rossetti did retrieve the notebook from the graveyard by lantern, shovel and barrel of wine. He discovered that a worm had eaten a sizable hole through several pages, which caused Rossetti further grief for having to rewrite what had been gnawed away. Hard to believe? Read by Pre-Raphaelites in Love by Gay Daly.
Rossetti was doing so well with his painting commissions from wealthy patrons that he could afford to pick and choose what he wanted to paint. And when he opted not to accept an offer, he told inquiring patrons, “I don’t feel like painting with the color grey today. I’ve done enough of that shade and hue already. But I do know someone else—a pretty good painter–who just might.”
At least that’s my own cracked rendition of how Whistler came meet the man whom Rossetti dubbed, “The Medici of Liverpool, ” Frederick Leyland, a wealthy shipping magnate who lived in London. Leyland was the cleverly ambitious son of a chop house owner who transcended the “boozing lot” of his work mates to soar from office boy to company owner. Once Leyland established himself as owner of his former employer’s shipping company, he became a patron of the arts and began to amass a healthy collection of Botticelli, Albert Moore and Rossetti as part of his investment portfolio.
Another version of how Leyland and Whistler met has its genesis in a very impressive business card. Leyland collected fashionable blue and white Kangxi-era Chinese porcelain from a London dealer named Murray Marks and became aware of Whistler’s work after seeing it on Marks’ business card. Marks’ business card bore a depiction of a Kangxi-era ginger jar painted by Whistler, an artful collaboration with Rossetti, who designed the card’s ornamental background, and William Morris, who created the typography.
Leyland wasted no time in snapping up Whistler’s painting, La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, which he planned to hang on the wall at one end of his dining room. He commissioned Whistler to paint a family portrait , The Three Girls, for installment on the opposite wall.
Leyland employed architect and interior designer Thomas Jeckyll to construct his drawing room. Jeckyll’s claim to fame had been his creation of a two-tiered, pagoda-inspired Japanese Pavilion of wrought iron which was showcased at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia and at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 before it was installed at a park in Norwich. At Leyland’s request, Jeckyll constructed spindly, japonais-styled vertical shelving around the perimeter of the room, set against panels of expensive red Spanish leather. Jeckyll was already in a reputedly fragile mental state due to previous incidents where he did not receive credit due for his work. His hoped this new commission would be an opportunity to reclaim his reputation as a designer, show off his skills and pick up more work.
At Leyland’s suggestion, Jeckyll painted some flowers on the red Spanish leather panels in the dining room. Jeckyll’s fatal error seems to be that he began to flounder when he had to choose a color pattern for the panels between the shelving. Leyland brought in Whistler to consult on the color scheme, given that it was Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain was to be featured on one wall and the commissioned The Three Girls on the other.
Thus the beautiful nightmare began. There is some scholarly debate over whether or not Jeckyll was already off his nut before Whistler came along and pushed him over the edge, based on correspondence between the two men. Newspapers later took advantage of the sensational drama to claim that Whistler’s commandeering of the Peacock Room was what drove poor Jeckyll into the asylum in the very end. Whistler initially agreed to dab a little more “harmonizing” color over Jeckyll’s floral designs on the leather and dab a bit of gilding here and there. It should have been a two-day job. Leyland left for Manchester to take care of pressing business.
In his employer’s absence, Whistler decided the entire room would look significantly better with a green, blue and gold color scheme and a passel of shiny gold peacocks. Peacocks were a happening theme in interior design of the day. Whistler’s painter friends, Albert Moore and Edward Poynter, had already whipped out several feathery-looking rooms. Possibly, Whistler looked around the dining room and saw an entire canvas at his disposal. With the cat away, the mouse did paint. And when he was done, he invited the press over to have a look-see. It was a clever tactic. When Leyland returned, the rave reviews rendered him incapable of immediately sending out for the white wash.
Leyland turned pale when saw all of Jeckyll’s fine dark walnut shelving now glinting with gilding and unasked-for peacocks arrayed on the shutters.
Whistler said that he was inspired by his friend Jeckyll’s work and had merely improved upon it. When Jeckyll saw all the press coverage accorded the glory and splendor of the Peacock Room to Whistler, this tipped him over the edge and into an insane asylum. Reportedly, Whistler’s remark on this was, “I have that effect on people.”
Whistler issued Leyland a fee of £2,000 guineas for his masterful redesign of the room. Leyland gained upper hand with his stoic businessman’s assessment: he offered to pay only half the amount since he never requested any golden peacock splendor. He suggested to Whistler that he take the peacock-bedecked shutter doors for himself, as he was clearly going to have to replace them. And given the damage Leyland felt the artist had wrought on his dining room on top of inviting strangers and the press into his private residence without permission, his original plan to install Whistler’s Three Girls painting was now out the window.
Whistler wasn’t done. Depending on who tells the tale, he:
1. Captured Mrs. Leyland’s affections. She was aware of her husband’s numerous peccadillos and figured she would show up her philandering spouse by blowing a few kisses toward the artist. She flung open the doors for the artist to enter on the sly and Whistler took advantage to add a few final touches to his peacock masterpiece…
2. Whistler was well aware that the family, decamped to a different residence to escape the mess of renovation, had no plans to return for another week or so. He took advantage to sneak into the house with his paint brushes and…
3. Whistler actually accepted grudgingly to Leyland’s insulting £1,000 offer, with Leyland adding further insult by paying in pounds rather than guineas. (Gentlemen were paid guineas, tradesmen in pounds. And with a 1 shilling difference between the two, it meant that Whistler received even less). However, Whistler’s stipulation for accepting the reduced sum was that he be given access to the room to apply a few necessary final touches…
In any case, Whistler gained access into the house with a bucket of paint and proceeded to completely obliterate the luxe red Spanish leather panels with a proper wash of turquoise blue. And for the piece de resistance, on the wall where his Three Girls painting would have hung, he painted an incendiary pair of peacocks. One represented the elegant artist proudly holding his own against another peacock raging away ridiculously atop a shining clutch of coins. Whistler referred to this duo as L’Art et L’Argent. [“Art and Money.”] American Railway car tycoon Charles Freer later purchased the famed Peacock Room in 1904 and had it shipped overseas and installed in his mansion in Detroit before he bequeathed it in 1924 to the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., where it is still on view.
1876-77 had been a particularly bad year for Whistler. On the heels of the Peacock Room fracas, the sanctified art critic John Ruskin issued a diatribe over his thorough distaste for Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin was incensed that Whistler was asking a whopping 300 guineas for what Ruskin judged on par with “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler took Ruskin to court for libel, seeking £1,000 in damages. Ruskin claimed a nervous breakdown, delaying the trial.
Eventually, Ruskin’s nerves settled and the trial began. When Ruskin’s barrister, Sir John Holker, took the low road and asked how long it took the artist to “knock off,” The Falling Rocket [which now hangs in the Detroit Museum of Art], Whistler informed him that it took all of two days: one to start and one to complete it. Holker moved in for the kill and asked Whistler if a 200 guinea fee for all of two days’ work was, in fact, outrageous. Whistler told him that the fee wasn’t based upon the number of days that it took to complete the painting. “I ask it for knowledge I have gained in a lifetime,” he said. The courtroom broke into applause.
Whistler won the trial but was awarded only one measly shilling, not his anticipated £1,000. The trial bankrupted him. Still, Whistler wins by the posterity and legacy of his work, not to mention a wit that could cut glass. Time has proven Whistler to be prophetic when he wrote to Leyland, “I have enfin [at last] received your cheque—shorn of my shillings, I perceive! — another fifty pounds off. Bon Dieu, what does it matter! The work alone remains the fact—so that in some future dull Vasari [the author of a 16th C. historical art encyclopedia] you may also go down to posterity like the man who paid Caravaggio in pennies.”
Lambourne points out in his book The Aesthetic Movement that Whistler got that tale a little mixed up. That story about Caravaggio comes from another 16th C. Italian art historian, Filippo Baldinucci–not Vasari–who wrote that Caravaggio had been paid in pennies by a disgruntled patron and it was the weight of the coinage that caused the artist to collapse and die under the hot sun. Scientists who later examined Caravaggio’s bones believe it wasn’t pennies but the ingestion of lead from his paint that ultimately lead to his demise.
There is a hilarious Punch magazine cartoon depicting the Whistler v. Ruskin trial with a set of Winsor & Newton paint tubes standing in as the jury.
At last, the story of my Whistler-induced black eye, acquired in first grade. My mother enrolled me into her old private school in Chicago where I learned quickly the hierarchies of boarding students versus day students. I was a lowly day student.
Also, I was already labeled as odd for being well-versed in all the Latin binomial nomenclature for spiders. If something went wrong, I was an easy target: Spider Girl Did It. I also found myself in a lot of hot water because I was incapable of following directions. I took everything literally. For example, when pedestrian crosswalk signs switched over from Walk/Don’t Walk to their little man representations, I wondered if I now had to cross the street like the blinking figure. Did I have to hunch forward like that? By how many degrees? And which hand should I thrust upward first—the right one or the left?
My questions labeled me as a smartass to my teachers. In truth, I was clueless. So I spent a lot of time by myself in detention during recess. Which was fine by me.
We were assigned an art project intended to be a gift for Mother’s Day. We were asked to glue, hilariously, gold spray-painted macaroni noodles along the border of postcards depicting famous pieces of art. I was slow when the mob descended to snatch up their cards. In a frenzy, everyone hoovered up the brightly colored, floral, happy, elegant and beautiful and then dispersed, leaving one abandoned, grimly-hued postcard, the that would become mine: the portrait of Whistler’s Mother.
Nobody wanted it because it was black and gray with an old lady on it who was staring blankly at nothing inside her dingy room. I gilded my noodles golden, glued them along the postcard border and set it alongside all the collected cards on a table in back of the room to dry.
During one of my recess detentions, I returned from the bathroom to discover three second-graders marauding through my classroom. Perhaps they were in detention, too, but wandered away in search of adventure. Apparently, that adventure involved destroying golden macaroni postcard art. Someone had torn golden noodles off the cards in their room so they were going to have their revenge with destroying everyone’s. Including mine.
I confronted them and made it clear that their notion of revenge via democratic destruction wasn’t cool. It was a little too late for my card, though. Several furry, torn paper patches glared like bald scraps of burnt lawn where my gilded macaroni once gleamed.
“Is this your mother?” one of the little mobsters sneered, pointing at the Whistler portrait. “She looks like a prune.”
It was three against one. I might have been sent home with a shiner but I learned that day I could give as good as I got. And then some. No one dared to mess with my artwork during the remainder of that school year.
In closing I will tell you that it’s one thing to see these paintings as images and make crack assumptions toward them and quite another to know their story. Daniel E. Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake has a portrait of the young Anna Matilda McNeill that proves her to be very beautiful in her time, before the difficult losses she faced later on as a mother and widow.
As far as that famed painting goes, the story is that Whistler was preparing to paint a portrait one day when his model fell ill and was unable to show up. He asked his mother to stand in. Because she was elderly, he accommodated her with the chair. Claude Debussy has stated that the inspiration to write his Nocturnes came to him entirely after viewing the palette of black and greys used in Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: a Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Amusingly, Whistler landed so much derision throughout his career for what others felt to be his overreaching, pretentious flights of fancy to entitle his artwork after musical compositions. In truth, he saw musical similarities in shadings and color and Debussy’s nod to his work was a joyous vindication.
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My sources and recommended further reading are:
The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Labourne
The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography by Linda Merrill
Whistler’s Mother: The Life of Anna McNeill Whistler by Elizabeth Mumford
Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake by Daniel E. Sutherland
James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth by Ronald Anderson, Anne Koval
James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art by David Park Curry
And, The John Scott Collection of ‘Modern English’ Design from the 1860s and 1870s, Volume Two, issued by The Fine Art Society of London in 2014.