WASHINGTON, DC — In 1876, James McNeill Whistler accepted a commission from his client and close friend Frederick Leyland to repaint the British shipowner’s dining hall, a summer-long undertaking that resulted in the Peacock Room, which is now at home in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. The space, painted entirely in teal and gold, is a shimmering, breathtaking work, named for the two gilded peacocks Whistler depicted on its south wall. But it also has an ugly past tainted by fights over artwork and money — one that artist Darren Waterston has now revisited through his own singular room, installed just next door in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Titled “Filthy Lucre,” Waterston’s work is the Peacock Room demolished. It closely recreates Whistler’s elegant chamber, but remixed into wreckage to express Whistler and Leyland’s friendship, which disintegrated once Leyland laid eyes on his new dining room.
The pair had known one another for almost a decade when Leyland hired the painter as a color consultant to decorate the room, designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll to display the aristocrat’s porcelain collection. Whistler, however, working alone while Leyland traveled for the summer, went beyond his duties, brandishing his brushes across the walls more and more ambitiously, ultimately transforming the entire interior. Upon his return home, Leyland was furious at this grand gesture of unauthorized artistic liberty; he declined to compensate the painter in full and even banned him from the room, and their friendship collapsed into incessant back-and-forth quarrels.
This disintegration emerges with full force in “Filthy Lucre,” crafted during Waterston’s nine-month residency at MASS MoCA that began in 2013. His contemporary room is an immersive visualization of clashes: between artist and patron, culture and cash.
In the room, shelves, almost all splintered, threaten to collapse from the weight of dented and chipped pottery — ceramics Waterston found in thrift stores and then painted, often garishly, as stand-ins for Leyland’s original blue-and-white china. Other wares, meticulously handmade by ceramist Diane Sullivan, were then intentionally deformed to reflect the room’s overall buckling. Some of these crude vases and bowls also lie shattered on the floor like victims of a recent earthquake or an unrestrained tantrum. Everything appears to ooze gold paint, which has gelled to form stalactites clinging to surfaces; the lustrous liquid has even seeped through the walls — visible from the installations’ exterior — or pooled on the floor below the painting of the peacock pair.
The birds, too, have changed. Whistler’s own mural actually stands as the only visual clue to his room’s unfortunate backstory: titled “Art and Money,” it is an exquisite mark of revenge he added after Leyland refused to fully compensate the painter. The original peacocks are sparring representations of the men, with one even sporting a feathered version of the patron’s tuft of white hair. Waterston’s own fowls are even more savage, literally disemboweling each other; the dripping paint and puddle beneath them are reminiscent of blood. Above the fireplace, a new painting shows the same model from Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain” in a new setting — her original, beautiful face masked by black paint.
Outside the room, visitors receive a sense of the tempestuous fights that followed Whistler’s blatant disregard for his assignment: through early next January, the exhibition features letters sent between the two former friends as well as paintings of the Leyland family. The correspondence reveals Whistler’s venomous descriptions of his patron as “a befrilled Philistine” and “a criminal of commerce”; his portrayals of Leyland especially emphasize how much their relationship soured. While one portrait from 1870 is a formal depiction of the aristocrat, another from 1879 is a caricature that presents the sitter as a mad human-peacock hybrid in a ridiculous, frilly dress shirt.
The latter’s title, “The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (the Creditor),” is Waterston’s source for his reimagined room; Whistler himself had adopted the phrase “filthy lucre” — which means “unclean gain” — from the King James Bible, where it appears four times to warn disciples who sought recompense for their teachings.
With these works on view, the Peacock Room’s elegance becomes a superficial sheen: its legacy is ultimately tied to a tale of artistic creativity, ego, and the money that drives the art market. But Waterston’s vision of ruined beauty that emphasizes the status of art as an object intended, in the end, for sale, is not merely a revisit of history. The relationship between artist and consumer is, of course, still a volatile one, especially with ever-changing technologies that affect the nature of commissions and require new standards of compensation. And as recent events prove, fights between collectors and artists will continue to occur and even escalate to levels as extreme as the infamous one ignited by the Peacock Room.
Filthy Lucre continues at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC) through January 2017. The first phase, which features letters and portraits of the Leyland family, continues through January 2016. A second phase, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art, runs from January to May 2016; Chinamania, the final phase, will occur from June to January 2017.