Beyond Wellesley: the Peacock Room at the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.

Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room
National Museum of Asian Art

When a quick visit to Washington, DC overlapped with school vacation week, we knew from experience that the most popular museums on the National Mall, that long, grassy promenade flanked by Smithsonians, would be crowded, indeed. Getting into the Air & Space Museum, the Holocaust Museum, or the Natural History Museum would be a challenge, one we didn’t care to accept. With a willingness to explore a lesser-know spot, we found what we were looking for at The National Museum of Asian Art. This admissions-free attraction was a place we’d never visited during our many visits to DC, so we felt like explorers. With 40,00 square feet of gallery space on three levels, the mid-sized museum was manageable. Best of all, down a long hallway, tucked away in a corner, the museum showcases a very special place, the Peacock Room.

The Peacock Room’s inception is a story of artistic license run amok. About 150 years ago in England, when the room’s architect, Thomas Jeckyll, casually asked American artist James McNeill Whistler what color would work best on the room’s shutters and doors, Whistler didn’t just mix a few test pigments and present them for review. He took advantage of large chunks of time when the room was left empty and, between 1876 and 1877, he painted as many golden peacocks as he could on the ceilings and the walls. Then he charged a hefty fee for his creativity. The room’s owner, London-based shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, was reportedly not happy with the over-the-top look of his dining room or the price that came with it, but he paid up and kept the room intact. This was Whistler, after all, painter of the iconic “Whistler’s Mother.” So the Peacock Room had to be artistically good, right?

Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room
Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room. The painting by James MdNeil Whistler is titled Art and Money: or, the Story of the Room.

Part of Leyland’s goal was to entertain guests in an elegant dining room that would showcase his stunning collection of ceramics from all over Asia, as well as his very own large-scale painting by Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which hangs over the fireplace. Mission accomplished.

Leyland’s valuable porcelain collection fills delicate gilded latticework wall racks, and the grand room also contains a Welsh dresser, and a Tudor-style ceiling with eight gas lights. All very nice, but it’s the radiant peacocks that people come to see. Whistler painted two enormous fighting peacocks on the wall, which he titled Art and Money: or, the Story of the Room, to symbolize the adversarial relationship between Whistler and Leyland, his reluctant patron.

Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, by Whistler, hangs above the fireplace with its gilded sunflower andirons.

The room was purchased from Leyland’s heirs in 1904 by Charles Lang Freer, who shipped it from London and had it installed in his home in Detroit, Michigan. The room, along with an additional 8,000 works of art, was donated to the Smithsonian after Freer’s death, where it remains on permanent display.

The Peacock Room is always a special place to visit, but on the third Thursday of each month, the museum opens the room’s shutters to bathe the space in natural light. Kerry Roeder, the museum’s curatorial fellow in American Art says on a YouTube video, “The transformation is dramatic, allowing visitors to experience the room in a whole new way. It takes my breath away every time I see it.”

Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room
Washington, DC, National Museum of Asian Art, Peacock Room

I’ve provided a peek at just one part of the museum’s extensive holdings. There’s so much more in the three-level space, which houses more than 45,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today and originating from the ancient Near East to China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world. For an even richer museum-going experience, take the underground connection to the Museum of African Art for a fresh, bold look at the beauty, power, and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide. As the weather improves, the gardens outside the museums are surely not to be missed. Look for the Moongate.

DESTINATION: The National Museum of Asian Art
LOCATION: 1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC
HOURS: Thursday–Sunday, 10am–5:30pm
PHONE: 202-633-1000