Bird of Prey: A Macabre Twist on James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room
Painted by James McNeill Whistler in the 1870s, the Peacock Room, on display in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is one of the most celebrated interiors in history. Decorations in teal and gold swirl over every surface—even the ceiling and shutters.
Now, in a twist worthy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Peacock Room has acquired a doppelganger. New York-based artist Darren Waterston has made a full-scale, warped replica of Whistler’s masterpiece, with broken shelves, smashed pottery, and gold paint pooled on the floor. This dark homage, called “Filthy Lucre,” is the heart of a larger exhibition called Peacock Room REMIX, on view through November 2016 in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art—next door to the Freer and steps away from the room that inspired it.
Waterston, who is primarily a painter, became fascinated by the Peacock Room a few years ago. He was struck by the contrast between its refinement and the very raw emotions that sprang from its creation: Whistler decorated the original dining room for his long-time patron, the British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, but he did so while Leyland was out of town, and went far beyond the modest commission. When Leyland returned to London, he refused to pay Whistler the whole sum the artist demanded. Their friendship ended in bitterness.
Curiously—and lucky for us—Leyland left the Peacock Room just as Whistler designed it. It was eventually purchased by another of Whistler’s patrons, Charles Lang Freer, and moved to Detroit and then to Washington in 1923.
Waterston built his copy during a residency at MASS MoCA, with the help of an architect, a glass conservator, carpenters, and other specialists. (The room, like Whistler's, is modular; it was broken down into parts, shipped to the Smithsonian, and reassembled.) Close comparison to the original is revealing. The sparring peacocks that Whistler painted on one wall—representing himself and Leyland—become more violent, tearing at each other’s entrails. On the opposite wall hangs a Surrealist reimagining of Whistler’s painting The Princess From the Land of Porcelain, her head a bloom of dark spores.
“Beauty is a very unstable idea,” Waterston said at an exhibition preview. His art often returns to the theme of decay inherent in beauty—the vanishing line between ripe and overripe. As the show’s curator, Lee Glazer, pointed out, Waterston’s room is a kind of memento mori: If devoted patrons and museum staff hadn’t tended to the Peacock Room over the past 140 years, rot or destruction could easily have been its fate.
Peacock Room REMIX is the first in a series of “confrontations” that Glazer hopes to stage between Whistler and contemporary artists. This sounds promising, but it is hard to imagine the others can top Waterston’s reimagining. In his deep and complex engagement with Whistler (which is, ironically, Whistlerian in ambition), Waterston proves that great works of art need to be confronted from time to time.