The Peacock Room Reopens at the Freer

A TEAL-BLUE peacock the size of a turkey strutted and preened on the steps of the Freer Gallery, reminding visitors of Whistler's famous Peacock Room, which has reopened at the Freer after an eclipse of 4 1/2 years.

The gallery, which was built by Midwestern industrialist Charles Freer in 1923, was the first of the Smithsonian Institution's art museums to house an Asian collection as well as Freer's American favorites from Whistler to Winslow Homer. It reopened this year after a $26 million expansion and renovation project.

Across the Freer courtyard ablaze with red geraniums, school children pushed and peered to catch another glimpse of the peacock, his train sweeping down the steps, a long fan of blue and green feathers with gold eyes, his neck a curved column of iridescent sapphire feathers. On a higher tier of stairs, his drabber, less flamboyant mate watched him with a quiet eye, although she too has something to be proud of: It's rumored that she has laid an egg somewhere in this pricey nest of great art. The pair of peacocks will be in residence all summer.

James McNeil Whistler's homage to the peacock, which he called "Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room," was first designed as the dining room in shipbuilder Frederick Leyland's London home. It was bought by Charles Freer and installed in his Detroit home, and later moved to his museum.

Stepping into the Peacock Room is like walking into an oil painting. As the light changes, the walls can look either hunter green or teal blue; the room also contains the fairytale-like Whistler oil, titled "The Princess from the Land Of Porcelain," of a graceful brunette in a flowing gold robe.

On one full wall, Whistler did a portrait of two peacocks facing off, their feathers lit by gold leaf. It is said that one symbolizes Whistler, the other Leyland. They had a confrontation over what had been done to Leyland's dining room and the resulting bill.

There's more Whistler art throughout the Freer, since this is the largest and most extensive collection of Whistlers in the world. Among the 58 beauties are his "Caprice In Purple and Gold: the Golden Screen" and "Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Valparaiso."

In this vast museum of pale-gray marble and limestone halls, there are l9 galleries, many of them devoted to Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist, South Asian, Islamic, Korean, and Ancient Near-Eastern Art. Freer liked it all and collected it in his five trips around the world.

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