The Lost Symphony: Whistler & the Perfection of Art

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre

A green and gold caricature of Fredrick Leyland, half transformed into a peacock, hunched over a piano.

By 1879, two years after completing the Peacock Room, Whistler had fallen deeply into debt. To repay his creditors, he was forced to auction off his assets, including the White House, his beloved studio-residence in the Chelsea neighborhood of London. Whistler channeled his grief and anger into an act of creative revenge. Knowing Leyland would be among the many creditors who would inspect his studio, Whistler painted this bitter caricature to replace The Three Girls, a painting he had promised his patron for a decade but had never completed. It shows the artist’s stylish patron morphing into a monstrous peacock, surrounded by bags of money and perched atop the gabled roof of the artist’s White House. As a final insult, Whistler mounted his cruel caricature in the frame he had designed for The Three Girls. Consigning his most exquisite frame to this spiteful purpose signaled Whistler’s decision to abandon the painting that had initiated his relationship with Leyland ten years earlier.

James McNeill Whistler
Oil on canvas
Frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11