The Story of the Beautiful presented by Freer Gallery of Art and Wayne State University

James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, 1876–1877. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. North wall, installed for The Peacock Room Comes to America. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.61. Credit: Neil Greentree.

The Story of the Beautiful presented by Freer Gallery of Art and Wayne State University

Smithsonian Institution

New online resource brings Peacock Room into the digital realm

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Wayne State University in Detroit have launched a new online resource, The Story of the Beautiful: Freer, Whistler & Their Points of Contact, a comprehensive guide to James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room and its dynamic history. The Peacock Room, an elaborately painted former dining room and one of the most famous masterpieces in the Freer’s collection, celebrates its 90th anniversary of being on public view in 2013. Story of the Beautiful at provides visitors with a deeply contextualized way to understand the room using more than 400 digital objects and a wealth of archival materials.

Users can explore two compelling 360-degree virtual versions of the room: one as it looked in Victorian London, filled with Chinese blue-and-white porcelain of the Kangxi era, the other as it appeared in 1908 after museum founder Charles Lang Freer reassembled it in Detroit and filled its shelves with subtly glazed ceramics from all over Asia. By clicking on each object in the room, visitors can zoom in on high-resolution images. Interactive maps and timelines, supplemented by letters, diary entries and vintage photographs from the Charles Lang Freer Papers, provide insight into Freer’s life story and his approach to collecting.

Project coordinators from the Freer’s American Art department and the Wayne State Library’s New Media and Information Technology Department intend to offer the site as a major resource for scholars, teachers and students, as well as a deeper experience for museum-goers. The artwork and period documents were part of Freer’s original bequest to the Freer Gallery, while Wayne State University, which now owns Freer’s Detroit mansion, provided the technical expertise to build the website. 

“This site makes an architectural and decorative icon of the Aesthetic movement universally accessible in a way that we couldn’t previously,” said Lee Glazer, project lead and curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “The inclusion of so many layers of visual and archival material is not only exciting, but also is invaluable to further research.” 

Glazer, museum staff and volunteers are demonstrating the new site’s interactive features to Peacock Room visitors at noon every third Thursday of the month, when the room’s shutters are opened for the afternoon. Currently, the room is installed as it was in Detroit, part of the exhibition The Peacock Room Comes to America.

The Story of the Beautiful site takes its name from Whistler’s belief that “the story of the beautiful is already complete—hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon—and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai,” a quote typical of the Aesthetic sentiment that art and beauty transcend time, place and historical circumstances and resonate across cultures for all those who have the power to “see beauty,” as Freer put it.

“Despite Whistler’s claim that ‘the story of the beautiful’ is unchanging, the Peacock Room’s dynamic history tells us otherwise,” said Glazer. “Even though it was created 130 years ago, it has been adapted by each owner to their own use, similar to the ways that we have adapted technology to transform our understanding of it. Digital storytelling is the Peacock Room’s next chapter.” 

Support for the project was provided by Smithsonian’s Web 2.0 Fund and the Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts.

The Freer Gallery opened in spring 1923 as the Smithsonian’s first art museum. Founder Freer was an industrialist and early Western collector of Asian art, amassing a large number of objects from China, Japan and the ancient Near East. Freer was also a contemporary and patron of James McNeill Whistler and collected more than a thousand works of his and other American artists, including the famous Peacock Room. Fascinated by the rich cultural history of East Asia, Freer built his remarkable collection guided by personal taste and self-taught connoisseurship; his emphasis on aesthetic connections across cultures continues to influence the Gallery today. 

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
1050 Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. 20560
Hours: Daily, 10–5:30pm (closed Dec. 25)
Admission: free