The Lost Symphony: Whistler & the Perfection of Art

Unmaking a Masterpiece

From 1867 until 1877, Whistler painted, scraped, repainted, and finally destroyed The Three Girls, even though Leyland had already paid him for the picture. The artist was never satisfied with a work of art that appeared supremely beautiful to all eyes but his own. Whistler’s mother Anna, who was then living in London, astutely identified the problem: the painting eluded him precisely because “he had tried too hard to make it the perfection of art.”

The Three Girls might have languished in Whistler’s studio had his relationship with Leyland not come to a sudden and bitter end in 1877. That was when the artist and his patron quarreled over Whistler’s elaborate—and arguably, unauthorized—redecoration of the Peacock Room.

Whistler wanted to bring the promised Three Girls and another of his paintings, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain), which Leyland had acquired around 1872, into visual harmony with the décor of the dining room. Leyland gave his permission to add a few touches of paint to the room’s decoration. Whistler was soon carried away and transformed the entire room into a work of art in its own right. While Leyland was out of town, Whistler gilded the shelving, painted magnificent peacocks on the shutters, and ornamented the ceiling with imitation gold leaf overlaid with painted blue peacock feathers. He titled his extravagant creation Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Leyland refused to pay the artist his high asking price for decorating the Peacock Room. In retribution, Whistler immortalized their quarrel on the wall that had been intended for The Three Girls. In its place he depicted a pair of fighting peacocks as allegorical portraits of the maligned artist and his wealthy patron.

Whistler never forgave Leyland for not appreciating the Peacock Room in aesthetic or monetary terms. The lost income added to the artist’s already dire financial situation, and by 1879 Whistler was bankrupt. He was forced to auction off his assets, including the White House, his beloved studio-residence in the Chelsea neighborhood of London. Leyland was among the many creditors to whom Whistler owed money. Knowing his former friend and patron would inspect his studio, Whistler painted a bitter caricature to stand in for the long-promised Three Girls. He depicted Leyland morphing into a monstrous piano-playing peacock, perched atop the gabled roof of the White House and surrounded by bags of money. To ensure Leyland and others would recognize The Gold Scab as the masterstroke of his vendetta, Whistler repurposed the exquisite frame he had designed for The Three Girls. He turned it on its side and mounted his shocking visual satire within its golden frame.

Your vanity has completely blinded you to all the usages of civilized life; and your swaggering self-assertion has made you an unbearable nuisance to every one who comes in contact with you. There is one consideration, indeed, which should have led you to form a more modest estimate of yourself, and that is your total failure to produce any serious work for so many years. At various times during the last eight or nine years you have received from me sums amounting to one thousand guineas for pictures, not one of which have ever been delivered; nor indeed during the whole of our acquaintance have you finished for me a single thing for which you have been paid.

—Leyland to Whistler, July 24, 1877

You say that during the whole of our acquaintance I “have never finished for you a single thing for which I have been paid” — Is not the Peacock Room finished?

—Whistler to Leyland, July 25, 1877

Learn more about how Whistler and Leyland went from friends to foes in this video, featuring excerpts from their decade-long correspondence.