“The Peacock Room Comes to America” Captures Freer’s Aesthetic Vision
In “The Peacock Room Comes to America,” the Freer Gallery’s most iconic artwork, a lavish dining room designed by James McNeill Whistler, will be reinstalled for the first time as it appeared in the home of museum-founder Charles Lang Freer in 1908. On display from April 9 through April 2013, the room will include more than 250 ceramics from China, Japan, Syria and Egypt that Freer used to define “points of contact” between Asian and American art.
“The Peacock Room has a dynamic history as both a room and as a work of art,” said Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art and organizer of the exhibition. “The reinstallation of Freer’s ceramics will finally allow the public to see the room through his eyes and, we hope, gain greater understanding of the complex cultural interchange between Asia and America at the turn of the 20th century.”
Created for London businessman Frederick Leyland, the Peacock Room originally contained Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. When Freer purchased the room and transported it to his Detroit-home, he displayed subtly toned pots in iridescent and monochromatic shades of green, gold and brown gathered throughout the Near East and East Asia. Freer arranged the ceramics to highlight tonal relationships among the vessels and other works of art in his collection—particularly his American paintings. Whistler’s painting “The Princess in the Land of Porcelain” remained over the fireplace, just as it had been in London when Whistler redecorated the room in 1876.
In addition to ceramics, Freer used the Peacock Room as an aesthetic laboratory that would facilitate “intelligent comparisons” with his other collections—prehistoric bronzes, biblical manuscripts and jades. The reinstallation of the Peacock Room, which coincides with the recent reinstallation of the Freer’s ancient Chinese material, will provide a similar opportunity to discover points of contact among seemingly disparate objects. The location of the Peacock Room at the junction of the museum’s east and west galleries is symbolic of Freer’s and Whistler’s position that the decorative arts should transcend the objects and strive for a harmonizing aesthetic vision between cultures.
The exhibition will be accompanied by the website, “The Story of the Beautiful: Whistler, Freer and Their Points of Contact,” which will launch in the summer of 2011. The site elucidates the exhibition through the following elements: virtual tours of the Peacock Room, one with the Chinese blue-and-white porcelains and one with Freer’s 250 ceramics; and an interactive map of Freer’s collecting trips to East Asia, the Near East and England, with accompanying archival materials, curatorial notes and images of objects from specific sites.
Public programming for “The Peacock Room Comes to America” begins with a free online symposium, “Aspirations of Universality: The Peacock Room in 1908,” May 11. The John Alexander Pope Memorial Lecture on Ceramics June 25 will showcase J.J. Lally, the noted art dealer and ceramics specialist, who will explore Freer’s ceramics collecting in comparison to that of J. Pierpont Morgan.
The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit www.asia.si.edu. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.
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