Evolutionary: Whistler, Darwin, and the Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77) triggered a famous clash between the artist and his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the 1870s, though, peacocks were ruffling feathers all over Britain, prompted in part by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pointed out that male birds’ showy plumage makes them easy targets for predators. If evolution by natural selection was valid, how could such a hindrance as a peacock’s train possibly have arisen, much less persisted?

This conundrum troubled Darwin, who confided to a fellow naturalist, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” But by 1871, he had developed a corollary theory of sexual selection, which explained that conspicuous variations in males make them irresistible, improving reproductive rates and offsetting any potential handicap or hazard. The peacock’s train thus evolved from generations of peahens selecting ever-more-gorgeous mates.

Particularly shocking to Victorians was Darwin’s suggestion that the appreciation of beauty is not a uniquely human quality. Debates over the origins and purpose of beauty played out among scientists, artists, and the public throughout the 1870s.

Scholars have long noted Whistler’s multiple sources of inspiration in the Peacock Room: Japanese peacock imagery; Western traditions associating the bird with beauty, luxury, and excess; and the vogue for peacocks and their feathers among Whistler’s fellow avant-garde artists. I believe that we can also look at the room through a Darwinian lens. For instance, the peacocks on the shutters play with and against Darwin’s assertion that male peafowl display their trains to attract females—or fight each other for the same purpose. The birds on the flanking shutters “display” with no hens in sight; in the central shutter, two males sit side by side, contemplating the beauty of the full moon. The shutters celebrate aesthetic delight without any reference to reproduction—indeed, without any possibility of it.

Peacock Room shutters

Peacocks do confront each other on the room’s south wall, in the mural Art and Money, pictured at top. But here, the angry bird (a caricature of Leyland, Whistler’s parsimonious patron) fights for his money, not a mate. The scene becomes ironic only in light of Darwin’s evolutionist explanation for clashes between peacocks. Behavior that Darwin attributed to the reproductive drive is here misdirected toward maintaining personal wealth. The Leyland-peacock hoards rather than disseminates, stifling rather than multiplying the (pro)creative power of art.

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