In 1873 Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner co-wrote a novel satirizing the grossly disproportionate class system that emerged in post-Civil War America. As industrial growth exploded, the Robber Barons/Captains of Industry (take your pick) accumulated vast fortunes that, in years before the income tax, seemed limitless. Inspired by the specter of such greed, Twain and Warner wrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. They snagged their title from Shakespeare’s King John (1595), which warned that “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” Theirs was not a golden age, the authors sniggered, but the less worthy gilded variety, in which a thin layer of gold covered a baser metal. xxxxxx
It was in this same period that wealthy British shipping mogul Frederick Leyland hired American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler to work on the dining room he was redecorating in his fashionable London home. Leyland’s architect,
Thomas Jeckyll, had redesigned the dining room as a showcase for two Whistler paintings, “The Porcelain Princess” and the still-unfinished “The Three Girls.” The room was also designed to display Leyland’s extensive collection of Chinese porcelain vases. In 1876 Leyland engaged Whistler to paint the dining room with a color scheme worthy of his collection, and suggested that the artist consider “using dutch metal (imitation gold leaf) in large masses.”
The idea burgeoned as Whistler worked on the room, and many surfaces were painted with imitation gold leaf and then sealed with a copper-green glaze. The artist kept his patron and good friend apprised of his progress, and Leyland at first seemed pleased. But at some point, Whistler’s vision soared into new territory, and –unsupervised by his trusting patron—he developed the elaborate peacock-feather design that soon covered the room’s walls and ceiling.
When he saw the finished product, Leyland was stunned. The peacocks particularly appalled him—“take them away and let new shutters be put up in their place,” he instructed. When Leyland refused to pay the hefty remuneration Whistler demanded, the artist began to view the whole episode as an example of how big money was incapable of appreciating real art. Whistler wrote Leyland that “It is positively sickening to think that I should have labored to build up that exquisite Peacock Room for such a man to live in!” Stoking his vengeance, Whistler painted The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre (1879), above, left, which caricatured Leyland as a horrific peacock wallowing in the imitation gold leaf that exemplified his corrupt artistic sensibility.
Despite his animus, Leyland continued to live with the Peacock Room for the rest of his life, not changing a thing. After his death in 1892, the house’s new owner left the Peacock Room intact as well, although years of London smog, coal fires, and cigar smoke had turned the room more green and brown than gold. This darkened room was what American industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer first saw in 1902.
Freer was then a major Whistler patron, and with the artist’s help, had amassed the most important collection of his work before Whistler died in 1903. Freer was even convinced to buy the Peacock Room, and in 1904 twenty-seven crates brought the contents of the entire room to a specially-built annex in the collector’s Detroit house. There it remained until Freer’s death in 1919, when it was transported to Washington, D.C. Freer had stipulated that his remarkable Asian and Whistler collections be donated to the Smithsonian upon his death, and funded a new gallery on the Mall where they could be displayed. The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, which included the Peacock Room, opened in 1923.
Left: Artist, Darren Waterston (2014) Photo: Art Evans
In 1982 Asian art collector and philanthropist Arthur M. Sackler funded the Freer’s sister museum, the Sackler, and it is in the Sackler that a stunning new installation has just opened as a bookend to the Peacock Room installed next door. Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre pays delicious homage to Whistler’s masterwork, capturing not only Whistler’s vengeance against the greed of the Gilded Age, but composing a strong contemporary statement about the decadence of the 21st century’s own Gilded Age—particularly the corrupting relationship between art and today’s marketplace.
Right: Darren Waterston, The Porcelain Princess, (detail) ‘Filthy Lucre’ (2013-14), mixed media. All installation photos courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York. Installation view, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA. Photo: Amber Gray, courtesy MASS MoCA
Filthy Lucre was inspired when MASS MoCA invited Waterston to paint a mural in a public space outside the museum’s theater. The artist became intrigued by how the Peacock Room devastated the previously successful Whistler-Leyland collaboration, and by how Whistler came to view Leyland as a corrupt soul who collected art as a status symbol rather than out of artistic desire. Waterston recognized a profound parallel between the commodity culture of Whistler’s Gilded Age and today, when the great wealth of the 1% has created a 21st century Gilded Age in which art is auctioned at phenomenal prices that exist only to trumpet the buyer’s status. As in Whistler’s time, art today is an object of the consumer marketplace: is there really a huge philosophic difference between an auction house hammering a “sold” price of a billion dollars, and sofa art being sold at Walmart?
Like Whistler’s Peacock Room, Waterston’s installation also took on a larger life of artistic imagination. Filthy Lucre is an installation nearly as large as the Peacock Room, and is fashioned as a darker alter ego: the intent is to have visitors feel the oppressive weight of “lucre’s” decadence. Wall texts to the exhibit explain that “lucre” derives from the Latin “lucrum,” and was first used in a fourteenth century translation of the New Testament to mean “unclean gain.” Waterston has said that, like Whistler accomplished with the Peacock Room, he wanted to create “a total work of art” in which every surface glittered with gold and dripped with paint. His goal was to invent “an embodiment of luxury run amok.”
Walking into Waterston’s installation, the visitor is surrounded by something familiar that has collapsed into decadent ruin: the gilded shelves are splintered and broken, and gilding seeps under the walls in giant wasteful pools. Waterston engaged ceramists to create versions of Leyland’s Asian pottery, and the room displays 250 hand-painted vessels that represent Leyland’s Asian collection. But these pots have drooping globs of paint and are variously damaged; on display, they look disheveled. Waterston’s version of the room’s centerpiece, Whistler’s “Porcelain Princess,” is not meant to evoke a woman of pure beauty, but perhaps a courtesan who will make herself available to the highest bidder.
Left: Excess gold paint drips from the walls, as cracked and broken ceramics litter the floor of ‘Filthy Lucre.’
Waterston’s Filthy Lucre vividly illuminates the corrupting relationship between art and money, and makes the topic as resonant today as it was when the Peacock Room was created.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
An exhibition at Washington, DC’s Freer-Sackler Gallery, through January 2017
Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and critic in Washington, DC
View a 360 panorama of the original Peacock Room, now installed at the Freer-Sackler, here: