Try this fun activity the next time you have out-of-town visitors:

Take them down to the Mall, to the Freer Gallery of Art (the museum so often overlooked by tourists, thank God). Before entering, ask your guests to close their eyes, then lead them into the exhibit titled "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room" and have them sit on the bench in the middle. Instruct them to imagine that they are vacationing homeowners who invited a painter friend to housesit, and while he was there, to do a little touch-up painting in a recently renovated dining room.

Okay. Now tell them to imagine that they have returned home and walked into said dining room. Then say, "Open your eyes. Surprise!"

The nuclear blast of decorative force that will greet them is nearly blinding: the gilt, the leather, the intricate interlocking patterns . . . the peacocks! So many peacocks!--all part of an overwhelming 3-D frame for a spectacular James McNeill Whistler oil painting, "The Princess From the Land of Porcelain." Whistler's masterpiece of room design takes "overdoing it" not merely to a new level, but to some entirely unknown dimension.

But thanks to the Freer, we all get to inhabit that dimension any time we care to. "This Dining Room From the Beyond," created for Whistler's wealthy patron F.R. Leyland in 1876, has been re-created in its entirety, including spectacular art nouveau lamps hanging from the ceiling and priceless Asian porcelain filling the gilded shelves.

And what makes it even better is that the little fantasy scenario described above is not so far from the truth: Whistler was initially asked only to consult with another decorator on the room's color scheme. One thing led to another and, nine months later, voila!

In fact, the patron was not entirely pleased. Especially when he got the bill. As biographers Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval recount in "Whistler: Beyond the Myth," Leyland wrote Whistler a note that, in 1876, must have been considered a stunning rebuke. Today, it seems like a sign of paranormal restraint:

"I do think you are to blame for not letting me know before developing into an elaborate scheme of decoration what was intended to be a very slight affair and work of comparatively few days."

You have to admit, he had a point. It was like leaving someone to make coffee, and returning to find your house leveled and replaced by a 10,000-acre coffee plantation, mill, cannery and Starbucks franchise.

Oh, and did I mention that more than a few historians believe Whistler had some kind of groove thing happening with Mrs. Leyland?

Bygones. As a true artist, the man must be forgiven. You simply cannot hold a grudge against a man who would take revenge--for being denied his fee and scolded for going too far--in such an elegant manner: He went much further.

He filled the back wall of the room with two more peacocks, the most spectacular yet, engaged in tails-blazing and wings-flailing combat. One is hoarding a pile of treasure and hissing at the other. Whistler saw it as a "cartoon," the cautionary tale of his conflict with Leyland. But if he meant it as a finger-in-the-eye, it is the most exquisite, refined finger imaginable. If this be rage, rage on.

--Tom Shroder, Vienna

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