The Gold Scab by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1879.

James Whistler is most famously known for the boldly composed painting of his mother, ‘Arrangements in Grey and Black No. 1.’  ‘The Gold Scab’ is a stark departure:  modern, angry, and comical.  It resembles something out of the oeuvre of Picasso or Dr. Seuss, not a Victorian artist known mostly for sweet portraits of women in somber grey or billowy white.

Directly before embarking on a costly and ruinous libel suit against art critic John Ruskin, Whistler was commissioned to “touch up” a decorative mural in the home of Frederick Leyland.  His task was to “harmonize” the room, improve upon the work done by another interior decorative artist.  Instead, Whistler “went on-without design or sketch-putting in every touch with such freedom…I forgot everything in my joy in it.”  He created a room awash in brilliant blue-green and gold leaf, a complete re-design of the original; he called his masterpiece ‘Harmony in Blue and Gold:  The Peacock Room.’  Leyland, furious with the drastic and unauthorized changes, refused to pay Whistler’s commission fee.  The loss of this much-needed income, a ruined reputation with other art patrons, and his disastrous libel suit against Ruskin resulted in bankruptcy.  Whistler’s beloved White House and his belongings were auctioned off by his creditors, including Leyland.

The enraged artist painted a caricature of Frederick Leyland as a greedy, vain and contemptible peacock sitting atop Whistler’s beloved White House.  The painting is an aggressive personal attack on Leyland and a bitter representation of Whistler’s own anger and disappointment.  He left the painting hanging prominently when his home and its contents were seized, a giant middle finger to Leyland and his other creditors.  The painting and a life-size photographic reproduction of the Peacock Room are currently being exhibited at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through June 17.

For more information on The Cult of Beauty:  The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, visit the Legion of Honor website.

-Jayme Catalano