The Peacock Room in Blue and White

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Blue-and-white Chinese porcelains once again fill the shelves of the Peacock Room, just as they did in the 1870s, when Frederick Leyland, a shipping magnate in London, dined there.

Blue-and-white porcelain dating to the Kangxi period enliven the east and north walls of the Peacock Room. These pieces from the permanent collection of the Freer Gallery are similar to what Leyland would have displayed. Recently commissioned ceramics line the west and south walls. These new porcelains are part of a 1,500-year-old tradition of making porcelains in Jingdezhen, China. Porcelain production during the Kangxi period (1662–1722) expanded China’s export trade with Europe, sparked the Chinamania craze in the nineteenth century, and bolstered the East-West exchange that endures to this day.

When artist James McNeill Whistler was asked to consult on colors in Leyland’s dining room, the sinuous patterns and brilliant colors of the Kangxi ware on display served as immediate inspiration. Whistler painted over the room in a flurry of blue and gold. His intricate patterns resemble the plumage of peacocks and create a tonal counterpoint to the porcelains. The Peacock Room in Blue and White allows us to experience the room in much the same way Whistler originally envisioned it.

We open the shutters of the Peacock Room one afternoon per month, allowing visitors to see it in a whole new light. When the shutters are open, a flood of natural light turns the Peacock Room into a glowing jewel of blue, green, and gold tones. The natural light reveals hidden details, colors, and textures—and a special filtering film on the windows minimizes fading.

The Peacock Room shutters are open on the third Thursday of each month from noon to 5:30 pm. No reservations or advanced ticketing are necessary.


Peacock Room Revealed

To prepare for this installation of blue-and-white porcelains, the shelves of the Peacock Room were cleared, providing an unobstructed view of the colors and peacock patterns that Whistler used to transform this dining room into “a harmony in blue and gold.”

In 1876 and 1877, Whistler enhanced Frederick Leyland’s dining room with golden peacocks. He painted every inch of the ceiling and walls to create an elegant setting in which Leyland could display his collection of Kangxi porcelain as well as Whistler’s 1864 painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain over the mantelpiece. Charles Lang Freer purchased the room in 1904 and installed it in his home in Detroit, Michigan. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was moved to Washington, DC, and put on permanent display in the Freer Gallery of Art.


Installing Porcelains

Nearly 170 pieces of new and historic blue-and-white Chinese porcelain were installed on the shelves framed by the room’s gilded walnut latticework. The careful, laborious process took several days to complete. Ninety-five of the vases, bottles, jars, and plates were recently commissioned to fill the niches of the south and west walls. Drawing upon Kangxi-style designs, the new ceramics reflect the 1,500-year-old tradition of making and decorating porcelains in Jingdezhen, China.


The Story of the Beautiful

To learn more about the Peacock Room’s dynamic history, visit the Story of the Beautiful, a major online resource created by the Freer Gallery of Art and Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Digital recreations present the Peacock Room in Victorian London of the 1870s and in the United States in the early twentieth century. Learn more about the diverse Asian ceramics that Charles Lang Freer displayed on its shelves. Browse the collections and use the interactive timeline and map to discover chronological and geographical connections of cultural interchange.