Although the special exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900 (on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17) primarily features art by English artists, the impact of American expatriate James McNeill Whistler cannot be ignored. Whistler is best known for his subdued but complicated portraits—such as the world-famous Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 or “Whistler’s Mother”—but today’s FRAME|WORK highlights a rather unusual painting by this American in England. The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor) is in the permanent collection of the de Young but is currently on view as a part of The Cult of Beauty.
A proponent of the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” Whistler is renowned for his delicate color harmonies and elegant sense of design. In The Gold Scab, however, Whistler calls upon his cutting wit to caricature his patron Frederick R. Leyland (1831–1892), a British shipping magnate. In 1876, Whistler transformed the dining room of Leyland’s London townhouse into Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, creating one of the most splendid and original 19th-century interiors. Now heralded as the epitome of Aesthetic interior design, Whistler’s reworking of Frederick Leyland’s dining room devastated Thomas Jeckyll, the room’s original designer, and infuriated Leyland, who refused to pay Whistler the full fee as originally agreed. This room is now permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, but we have recreated its splendor specifically to showcase The Gold Scab for the duration of The Cult of Beauty.
In 1878, appalled by what he perceived as the unfinished quality of Whistler’s highly abstracted Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), the English art critic John Ruskin accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy, for despite winning the suit, he was awarded a humiliating quarter penny in damages. Whistler’s chief creditor was Leyland, so when the creditors arrived to inventory the artist’s home for liquidation, they were greeted by this mocking portrait.
The Gold Scab depicts Leyland as a hideous peacock, sitting upon Whistler’s house as if it were an obscene egg. Using the same colors featured in the disputed Peacock Room, the artist caricatures Leyland’s miserliness, piano skills, and habit of wearing frilled shirts (hence the title, “Frilthy Lucre”). Whistler’s butterfly monogram bears a barbed tail poised to strike at Leyland’s neck.
Immerse yourself in a sea of teal and scandal in The Cult of Beauty on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17!