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Leaving room for a bold statement

Artists' strokes of color created memorable spaces

By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Home + Living

1:04 PM EDT, September 21, 2011

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The 2012 color trend forecasts are already being released and, for the most part, what's predicted to be popular next year is a fairly boring cast of neutrals and muted natural hues — dusty sky blue, washed-out green, stone gray and earthy brown.

Following these latest trends might help deflect the scrutiny of others, but truly memorable spaces have never been shrinking violets. Rooms that stand the test of time and are the kind worthy of being memorialized through preservation or conservation are typically bold departures from the current trends.

Several rooms come to mind, including two rooms in Evergreen House designed by Russian artist and set designer Leon Bakst and one created by artist James McNeill Whistler and known as the "Peacock Room."

Evergreen House was the Garrett family home in Baltimore from the 1870s to the 1940s, and at the request of longtime friend Alice Garrett, Bakst converted a gymnasium in the house to a theater room for staging plays, stenciling and painting the space in an Art Deco-meets-Russian folk-art motif.

The Bakst Theater is probably one of the more famous rooms at Evergreen, but, for its subtlety and timelessness, I prefer the dining room, which Bakst redecorated in 1922, painting it a vibrant yellow.

"At the time, the leading colors for such American spaces were gray, beige and buff," says James Archer Abbott, director and curator for Evergreen Museum and Library.

"Bakst's reasoning for yellow can only be guessed upon," says Abbott, "but through his then-near-decade-long friendship with Garrett, the artist was presumably instructed to create something vibrant and, yes, theatrical. She liked color, electric color. She didn't want the staid rooms that other Baltimore hostesses used for entertaining."

To further distinguish the space, Bakst purchased the 19th-century Chinese, red and gold scrolls depicting the eight immortals to adorn the walls. "These eight figures represent both sexes, as well as age and youth, wealth and poverty, etc., which, together, shared an understanding of the secrets of nature," according to Abbott. "One could also presume that these Chinese pieces dictated application of the red and yellow color scheme — the West's well-recognized assigned palette for 'Chinese' décor."

"Though the room is not lighted by the American standard of a suspended ceiling fixture, it remains an incredibly bright room no matter what time of day. Thus, we may have another reasoning behind Bakst's selection of such an acidic and vivid color for the walls," says Abbott.

Opposite yellow on the color wheel, the deep blue of Whistler's now famous "Peacock Room" offers a more audacious example of the artist as room colorist.

Originally built in London for wealthy ship merchant Frederick R. Leyland in the 1870s, the room was eventually dismantled, shipped to Michigan and reconstructed for Whistler collector Charles Lang Freer, and then, in the 1920s, dismantled and reassembled again in the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.

I recently visited the room because now on the third Thursday of every month the gallery, for the first time in 25 years, is opening the shutters to display the space as it was meant to be viewed, by natural light.

Designed by Whistler some 50 years before Bakst's dining room at Evergreen House, the room features a Prussian blue accented with imitation gold and silver leaf as well as painted peacock figures and motifs.

As the story of Whistler's involvement goes, the original room was nearing completion and its architect Thomas Jeckyll contacted Whistler about the color to paint the rooms, doors and shutters.

To complement his painting "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," which hung in the room, Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls with traces of yellow.

Unbeknownst to Jeckyll or Leyland, Whistler soon opted for a more flamboyant statement, covering the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he applied a painted pattern of peacock feathers.

Then he gilded the walnut shelving designed to house an extensive collection of Chinese porcelain, used the interior shutters as canvas for four paintings of peacocks, painted the expensive and opulent gilded leather walls specified by the architect a deep greenish-blue, and capped off the design by painting two more peacocks on the wall opposite "The Princess."

In short, Whistler thumbed his nose at Jeckyll's design and Leyland's tastes in favor of his own vision.

Today, the room, which Whistler dubbed "Harmony in Blue and Gold," stands as a testament to the power of bold design. Had Jeckyll's original design prevailed, the room would have been beautiful I am sure, but it was Whistler's audacious strokes of creativity that were preserved.

Bakst's and Whistler's rooms may not be your style — the Peacock Room is over the top for sure — but both encourage a fun, bold expression of color.

Next time you've got a room to paint, I say throw caution to the wind. What have you got to lose?

The materials are cheap, and it only takes a couple of days to repaint a room if, in retrospect, you decided "safer" colors are more your style.

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.



If you go



The Peacock Room



The Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., on the National Mall in Washington. Tours of the room are at 2 p.m. daily. For viewing the room in natural light, the shutters are opened on the third Thursday of each month, 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. Go to asia.si.edu.



The Bakst Theater



Evergreen Museum and Library, 4545 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Guided tours available. Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for children ages 6-17 and students with ID. Call 410-516-0341.