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THE PEACOCK MOTIF AS DECORATION: A Brief History
Ancient Days of Glory
The peacock has been a favorite ornamental motif for millennia. Images of Peacocks adorned fabrics, jewelry and objects d’art in ancient Egypt, Rome and Byzantium. In ancient times peacocks represented rebirth and renewal since they shed their feathers each year and grow back bright new ones. They also are able to eat poisonous plants and survive which connected them to immortality and eternal life. The peacock represents wealth, beauty and dignity as well as pride and vanity. As the national bird of India, where peacocks originate, they symbolized royalty.
The magnificent palaces of the Maharanis and Maharajas of the sixteenth century painted in exotic peacock patterns were eye-dazzling. Equally spectacular were the Arabic and Turkish sultans’ palaces decorated with Arabic script in colors of gold and shimmering iridescent turquoise which created an atmosphere reminiscent of the fabled Arabian Nights.
Peacock Motif Travels Westward
When Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901), expanded her territories to include India and neighboring lands, the unusually beautiful peacock captivated wealthy European tourists traveling to these parts. They brought back souvenirs of peacock feathers to proudly display in vases in their homes and occasionally the bird itself, stuffed.
It was at the end of the 1800s that peacocks became popular in Western visual culture. Artists looked back to the past for pre-Victorian industrial artistry. They were inspired by the Islamic world’s depiction of beauty and pleasure and were particularly influenced by the linear art of Japan - both cultures that adorned with the peacock motif. Thus, the peacock, a creature defined by beauty, became one of the prevailing symbols in Western art for the Arts and Crafts, the Aesthetic and the Art Nouveau movements.
A Scandalous Affair or A Pair of Fighting Peacocks
In 1876 Shipping magnate, Frederick Leyland asked artist James McNeill Whistler to make minor touch-ups to his London estate dining room while he was away on business. With brazen artistic license, Whistler painted over the expensive brown leather walls with blue paint, silver and gold leaf in a peacock motif that was all the rage at the time. (He also entertained friends there and for good measure had an affair with Leyland’s wife.)
Upon returning, a stunned Leyland refused to pay the bill, (eventually paying Whistler half), for such lavish, non-commissioned work. In retaliation, Whistler sneaked back into Leland’s house and painted the final panel of two peacocks, one with silver coins spilling from his breast, fighting. He entitled it “Art and Money; or the Story of the Room”.
The room was entirely dismantled in 1904 and reassembled, (minus the furniture), in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, London 1876-77
A masterpiece of interior mural art.
Across the Pond to America
In the 1890s the peacock motif was introduced to America by Louis Comfort Tiffany with his favrille glass vases, peacock lamps and bronze peacock bases. His artisans used ancient Roman glass-making techniques to create the iridescence and colors of peacock feathers.
By 1900 the peacock motif became hugely popular on high fashions, jewelry, interior fabrics, wallpaper, advertising posters and is still popular today. The logo of the NBC television network is a peacock.
Peacock Fun Facts
There are two familiar peacock species: the blue peacock, the national bird of India and Sri Lanka, and the green peacock that lives in Java and Burma.
It is the male peacock that has the beautiful “train” of iridescent blue and green feathers which can reach 6 feet long. The female is brown with white breast and no “train”.
Peacocks have a lifespan of 20 years both in the wild and in captivity.
The male is called a peafowl, the female is called a peahen, their babies are called peachicks and a family is called a “bevy”.
Peacocks are ground-feeders, eating insects, plants and small creatures.
Peacocks can fly, but only as high as a tree top to escape from predators.
In the Hindu religion, the peacock is a sacred bird because the spots on its tail symbolize the eyes of the gods.
Peacocks were used as palace guards wandering the grounds, alerting with their piercing calls.
The saying “proud as a peacock” is associated with men who consider themselves handsome and sharply dressed.
May we suggest our Peacock Window to adorn YOUR home?