A century before Warhol, Whistler treated his own persona as a work of art. In the Peacock Room, he created an installation that expressed his bitterness about the ties between art and money.
In Darren Waterston’s version of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s famed Peacock Room, an installation called Filthy Lucre (2013–14), at MASS MoCA through January, decay and ruin have ravaged the premises.
Gold stalactites drip from the undersides of shelves; a puddle of gold, looking like glistening urine, pools on the floor; exotic ceramics, similar to those collected by the owner of the original room, are cracked or broken into shards; the shelves on which these objects are displayed are rickety to the point of collapse. And the centerpiece of the room, a copy of Whistler’s painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863–65) is hideously defaced by a dark, tarry mass that covers the figure’s lovely face and neck.
A soundtrack by the New York band BETTY pipes through the dimly lit room, along with whispered quotes lifted from Whistler himself (such as, “an artist’s career only begins tomorrow,” and “paint should be like breath on a plate of glass”).
Waterston, who is known for ethereal abstract paintings that might be descended from Whistler’s “Nocturnes,” was approached by MASS MoCA a couple of years ago to create an architectural space in one of the museum’s galleries. “I was thinking about all the great painted rooms of art history,” he says, “and I remembered reading about the Peacock Room. I was dumbfounded when I researched it and discovered how fresh the story seemed. I thought, ‘My God, we are living in our own gilded age. This is a tale of the art world and the complexities of money and art and patronage, about how art gets made and how it gets brought into the world.’”
As Waterston recognized, the story of the Peacock Room exposes the tensions that can arise when new money hires outsize egos. In 1876, Frederick R. Leyland, a British shipping magnate, commissioned the architect Thomas Jeckyll to design a display space in his London dining room for his Qing-dynasty porcelain collection. Because Whistler’s portrayal of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty in a peach-colored kimono hung over the mantel, Jeckyll consulted the artist about the room’s color scheme. When Jeckyll fell ill and Leyland left for Liverpool on business, Whistler took charge, adding many more design details, like the gilded peacocks on the shutters.
Leyland was flabbergasted when he saw Whistler’s embellishments, and further outraged by the bill the artist presented for 2,000 guineas (about $200,000 today). He agreed to pay only half of that sum, which prompted the artist to add more decorations, including two savage peacocks facing off against a ground strewn with silver shillings. Leyland threatened to horsewhip him if he ever appeared at the house again, but he kept Whistler’s work intact.
After Leyland’s death in 1892, Charles Lang Freer, another Gilded Age tycoon, acquired the room and its contents, including The Princess and the peacocks, and shipped them to his Detroit mansion. He later bequeathed his entire collection of Whistler’s works to the Smithsonian Institution, which has carefully reconstructed the room as it was in Freer’s day. (The Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian will also play host to Waterston’s installation in May.)
Whether or not the squabbles between Leyland and Whistler accurately presage the tensions between patrons and artists today, the American expatriate artist who did battle with the likes of John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde is enjoying a rush of renewed attention in the form of a major new biography by Daniel E. Sutherland, a documentary that aired on PBS in September (narrated by Anjelica Huston with Kevin Kline reading Whistler’s words), and a spate of exhibitions from the United States to Liverpool and Yokohama. Whistler scholars, including the curators of the highly praised “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames” (most recently at the Sackler Gallery), have also put all of Whistler’s known correspondence—some 10,000 letters—on the Internet, along with the catalogue raisonné of his etchings. Audiences are still drawn to the sheer beauty and variety of his work, not just the famously dour portrait of his mother but also his ravishing views of the Thames at night and the quicksilver etchings of Venice and London.
“You can’t look at most of his work and not be impressed by the delicacy and the beauty of nearly everything he did,” says Sutherland, author of Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake, the first biography of the artist in more than 20 years.
“Beauty is enjoying a slight resurgence in the world of art,” says Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, “and Whistler certainly fits into that kind of idea . . . and that was what he was striving for in his time. Then there’s a lot to say about Whistler because he’s at once American and French and British, and also was so involved in collecting Asian objects, and later exerted a strong influence on artists in Japan.”
There’s also much to be said about how Whistler’s behavior and his art anticipate certain tendencies in the art world today. After flunking out of West Point, where he learned the elements of draftsmanship that would eventually serve him so well as a printmaker, Whistler fled to Europe—primarily Britain and France—never to return to the States again. He was friendly with leading figures in the avant-garde in both London and Paris, but he maintained a certain independence from group endeavors.
“Degas invited him to exhibit at the first Impressionist exhibition,” says Sutherland. “But being Whistler, he did not want to be a disciple or even a close friend of the leaders of that group.”
As the biographer discovered in researching his subject, and the documentary makes clear in presenting his life, there was more than one Whistler. There was the hardworking artist who took his theories quite seriously but adopted for his monogram the ephemeral butterfly (albeit with a long stinger for a tail), and then there was “the confrontational Whistler, consciously manufactured to attract attention,” says Sutherland. Beneath it all, he adds, “I found him to be one of the most insecure people I’ve ever encountered.”
The script for the PBS documentary, “James McNeill Whistler: The Case for Beauty,” calls the artist “the original art star,” and notes that his penchant for dandified accoutrements such as monocles and patent-leather boots, like Andy Warhol’s fright wig or Julian Schnabel’s pajamas, helped keep him in the public eye. As Glazer observes in the film, “He treated his own persona as if it were a work of art.”
There were times, though, when Whistler went too far. He hoped the libel suit against John Ruskin, the premier critic of the day, who accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” would bring favorable publicity to his cause. Instead the case alienated his patrons and the court costs helped drive him into bankruptcy.
But the case did represent a great public-relations move in that it offered a platform for his ideas, and many of those ideas—under the rubric “art for art’s sake”—still resonate today. With Whistler begins a liberation of painting from storytelling, in particular from the moralizing and tendentious inclinations of the Pre- Raphaelites so popular in Victorian England. His “Nocturnes” prefigure full-blown abstraction, as does his way of titling some of his paintings: the official label for his portrait of his mother is Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871).
The case could also be made that the Peacock Room was one of the earliest examples of installation art, and that the artist learned how to brand himself “so that he would be a distinct player in this very crowded artistic marketplace,” as Glazer puts it. Some of his antics, others point out, rank almost as early performance art.
Whenever there is a flurry of renewed interest in an artist’s works—in the form of museum exhibitions, scholarly publications, and the like—there is usually a concomitant spike in the market. Whistler’s works have always commanded healthy prices (prints, pastels, and watercolors sell for between $200,000 and $800,000, according to Elizabeth Sterling, head of American art at Christie’s). Significant paintings rarely, if ever, come on the market; the last was Chelsea in Ice (1864), which sold for $2.6 million and is now in the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.
“People rank him along with Sargent among the top American artists of that period,” says Sterling. “He’s not considered, like so many of the American Impressionists, as derivative of what the French were doing,” adds Debra Force of Debra Force Fine Art. “So few American-born artists of that period have any kind of international following, so he’s in a different category.”
As for what a younger generation might find in Whistler, Waterston maintains that “artists are paying attention to his work again as a thing of unexpected relevance. It’s easy to see him as immersed in a privileged sect, as an artist who moved in these strategic circles for his own benefit. But my artist friends look to Whistler to find out how to survive, how to make a living from their work, and how to cultivate an environment and the patronage to sustain a career.”
And that’s not a bad role model for any century.
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 100.