A Love of All Things Asian: The Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room

I tend to think of the influence of Asian art on Western design as being a recent trend but in fact it has had a significant impact for over 150 years.

by Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky (1830-1833)
Photo: The British Museum

In the 1860’s, Japan opened up to international trade, which provided Europe with greater access to the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints that were gaining popularity in France. The style of artists like Katsushika Hokusai was completely different from the realism found in traditional European painting at the time.

Painting by Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, Maternal Caress (1891)
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artists of the Impressionist and later movements emulated the clean lines and bold colours of the Japanese masters, as well as the scenes of everyday life and landscapes.

Japanese inspired Van Gogh painting

Vincent Van Gogh (after Eisen), La Courtisane (1887)
Photo: Hokusai Online

People in Paris and London went crazy for all things Japanese, including ceramics, bronzes, and clothing items like kimonos and fans. As interest in the East grew, so too did an interest in the art of other cultures, like China.

Kimono fabric in European dress

19th Century Dress Made from a Kimono
Photo: The Dreamtress

Perhaps the greatest example of this fascination with incorporating elements of Asian culture in 19th century design is The Peacock Room. Originally created for British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland to showcase his Chinese porcelain collection, it was redecorated in blue and gold by James McNeill Whistler in the 1870’s to reflect the patterns of Leyland’s ceramics. Whistler even installed one of his Japanisme paintings, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, above the mantle.

The Peacock Room

The Peacock Room
Photo: Picturing AmericaMIAC

In 1908, Charles Lang Freer purchased the room and it shipped to America and installed in his house in Detroit. Like Leyland, he used the space to display his collection of Asian and Islamic ceramics.

The Peacock Room
Photo: The Freer Gallery

The room has once again been transported, this time to the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., complete with its ceramics just as it stood in Detroit. I recently visited the Freer to view its collection of Islamic art but ended up spending almost an hour in this room. I was mesmerized by the rich gold and bluish-green colour scheme; it was both overwhelming and comforting and if I didn’t have a train to catch, I could have spent the rest of the day there taking in the many wondrous details.

The Peacock Room
Photo: Smithsonian Studio Art Blog

Since then, I have found myself a little obsessed with this space, wondering if a modernized version might be possible. Peacock blue has been a popular paint colour in recent years, and that would be the easiest fix, with added touches of gold and a few Asian accessories.

Photo: House of Turquoise via Vignette Design

If you want to go really bold, you could use vintage-style wallpaper, like this damask print.

Photo: Kaboodle

I think the Victorian horror vacui wallpaper/painting is a little much (and who can afford to have someone like Whistler come and paint their living room?) but a screen with a peacock design would help to evoke its spirit.

Photo: Whitehaven Interiors

Perhaps the easiest way to replicate the Japanisme décor of the original room is with groupings of Asian ceramics or other collectables.

Photo: Greentea Design

These don’t need to be precious antiques and in fact I think it would be far more interesting to use modern items, perhaps set on gold lacquered shelves against a bold blue background.

Photo: Greentea Design

If you are in Washington, I urge you to visit The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery. If you can’t, you can at least take a virtual tour online. But what I would really like to see is your interpretation of this Western take on Eastern style. Have you mixed East and West in your décor?

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