James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
United States, 1870-1873
Oil on canvas
H x W: 218.5 x 119.4 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.100a-b
Charles Freer, who purchased the Peacock Room in 1904, did not see this painting of the Room’s first owner, Frederick Leyland, until 1905, though he confessed that hearing a fellow-collector describe it “makes my blood tingle.” It depicts Whistler’s important early patron in black evening dress, accented with the ruffled shirt-front for which Leyland was renowned. The dramatic palette and tall, narrow format are derived from the Spanish court painter Velásquez, whose works Whistler had seen some years earlier, at an exhibition in Manchester. Although artist and patron would suffer a falling out over Whistler’s decoration of the Peacock Room, Whistler was on intimate terms with the Leyland family in the early 1870s, and Frederick Leyland, who endured long sessions posing for this work, was pleased to be painted in the style of seventeenth-century royalty.
Many of Whistler’s full length portraits are contemporaneous with the Nocturnes, with which they share many formal qualities, including a reduced, darkened palette and soft, almost vaporous surfaces. As with the Nocturnes, Whistler gave these portraits musical titles intended to emphasize color and composition rather than the individuality of the sitter. Even so, the personalities depicted are rarely effaced by their artistic handling, and it was surely the dynamic tension between artistic selection and human presence that attracted Freer to this work.