Whistler at the Freer

Venture back to the late nineteenth century through the work of American artist James McNeill Whistler, now on view at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Caught up in the Chinamania craze that swept England during Queen Victoria’s reign, shipping magnate Frederick Leyland filled the shelves of his dining room with his vast collection of blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain. When Leyland allowed Whistler to add touches of color to the room, the artist responded by transforming the space into a riot of blue and gold. In The Peacock Room in Blue and White, porcelain pieces in the Freer collection are juxtaposed with recently commissioned ceramics in the Kangxi style. The visually surprising result both emphasizes the centuries-old tradition of making and decorating porcelain in Jingdezhen, China, and reveals Whistler’s aesthetic vision of the room in the late 1870s.

While the Peacock Room endures as an icon of American art, it marked the end of Leyland’s patronage of Whistler. Bankrupt and adrift as an artist, Whistler reinvented himself with the help of watercolor. His friend, Charles Lang Freer, amassed the world’s largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors, yet these seascapes, nocturnes, and street scenes have never left the confines of the museum. As seen in the exhibition Whistler in Watercolor, extensive recent research conducted by curators, conservators, and scientists shines new light on Whistler’s materials, techniques, and artistic genius.