Dave and I were at the de Young Museum on Sunday afternoon. I haven’t been there more than once or twice in my life, and probably not in well over a decade; Dave, on the other hand, has been there many times throughout his life (he grew up in the Bay Area), and he’s familiar with a lot of the collection.
I could only vaguely remember anything in the museum, and it was a bit of a shock to me to come across an oil painting by Whistler that I didn’t remember ever seeing before and couldn’t remember knowing anything about, The Gold Scab. But when I pointed it out to Dave, it turned out the painting was an old acquaintance for him.
I was surprised at myself for not knowing about this painting. Whistler is one of my favorite painters, and his Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., is one of my favorite places. Whistler painted the room for his patron Frederick Leyland, but as the work progressed, the two men quarreled increasingly bitterly over it, and over how much Leyland should pay Whistler for it. Even after they’d finally agreed on a fee, Leyland shaved shillings off it as a deliberate insult. They never reconciled after that.
The banner at the top of this blog is adapted from the mural Whistler painted on one wall of the room. The peacock on the left represents Whistler himself, and it is fleering at the peacock on the right, who represents Leyland. Leyland’s peacock has silver shillings in among its gold breast feathers, has silver shillings in place of eyes in its tail feathers, and is standing on a pile of gold coins and silver shillings. (The whole wild story is both sad and funny, and the loss of Leyland’s patronage was a self-inflicted blow to Whistler’s finances that he never recovered from.)
As I said, I couldn’t remember having even heard of The Gold Scab before, though I checked my books when I got back home and it’s definitely mentioned; I’d just forgotten it. But I immediately recognized the painting as a cruel caricature of Leyland — the fact that he looks like a man in a peacock suit decorated with gold coins is an obvious giveaway to anyone who knows the story of the Peacock Room, and I remembered what the man looked like from Whistler’s full-length portrait of him. Evidently Whistler wasn’t content with having painted his contempt for Leyland on the man’s own dining room wall, but had to produce an additional three oil paintings mocking him, of which only this one is known to have survived.