On Day 2 of this coquettish spring, ashen skies cleared just enough so that the Freer Gallery of Art’s monthly afternoon of sun-worshiping was not in vain.
A staff member wearing gloves to protect oil paint from oily hands announced that noon had come and gone; they were four minutes late. It was time to arouse the dueling peacocks and the fair-faced princess of porcelain; time to allow this chameleonic room to dazzle its eager guests.
The Peacock Room remains cloistered from the sun 353 days each year. Painted from floor to ceiling by James McNeill Whistler, the American artist who expatriated to London in the late 19th century, the room impresses visitors to the Smithsonian’s foremost showcase of Asian Art. (The room may be British, but its inspiration and pottery comes from the East.)
On the third Thursday of each month, from noon to 5:30, the gallery opens the three shutters of the Peacock Room, pushing golden birds aside to let light and a lovely view appear in windows that no one bothers looking through. The room becomes what has been called a “harmony in blue and gold” when light reaches the first sea-foam-colored vase.
The scene is fairly monochromatic in darkness but richly detailed in daylight. Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, notices the variations in plumage in the light, the imitation gold leaf painted on the walls and a ceiling covered in semicircular feathers. Children sometimes notice four butterflies, the final signature of the artist, hidden throughout the room but easy to spot from a three-foot vantage point. Others notice architect Thomas Jeckyll’s golden display spaces, carefully crafted and carved for displaying ceramics of all kinds.
With such bold color, it is hard to fathom that anyone could hate the room that Frederick R. Leyland, the patron, despised when he saw the final commission in 1877. Curators say he hated it because Whistler ignored his request for restraint, painting over leather walls at whim. A cockfight ensued between the two, first figuratively and then painted on the wall facing the porcelain princess, making the Peacock Room an obvious affront to the patron who paid for its beauty. That scene dominates the room except when the shutters are open, blending in with the hodgepodge of ceramics that its last owner, Charles Lang Freer, appointed it with in 1908.
The room also depicts how fashions and fascinations change. It once housed the museum’s small collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain; it now houses Freer’s massive collection of pottery from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Korea, countries once known not for catastrophe, but for culture.
Freer certainly wanted it that way. All countries represented, light gleaming down on a harmonious vision that Washington can celebrate once in a gray sky, if only for a few hours each month.
The Freer Gallery of Art is at Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW, and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.