Given the severity of one of his most recognizable paintings, the portrait of his mother, I was seriously surprised to learn that James Abbott McNeill Whistler was such a dandy! I saw just how un-Puritan his personality was when I visited one of the liveliest artifacts of the decorative arts to have survived his era—Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room ensconced in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He was also a hot-head so I’m tapping him as the Prince of Pop-Ups in my series on legendary SEO because his behavior represents aggression on par with how Google sees fast-loading display interstitials and pop-ups.
Acts of Aggression: Interstitials and Pop-Ups
Pop-ups have become a drawback in Google’s eyes because they decrease the satisfaction of a mobile user’s experience, a stance the company strengthened with an algorithm tweak in January of 2017. To put it simply: the move penalizes sites that quickly display interstitials and pop-ups before a visitor has been able to experience the content of the site. Google has repeatedly made it clear that they are rewarding sites that provide satisfying user experiences (or UX in SEO lingo) and punishing those that don’t.
The company’s team maintains that their aim is to penalize for pop-ups that cover the entire screens of iPad minis, iPhones and other hand-held devices, which many pop-ups do because the screens are so much smaller than a laptop’s or a desktop’s because they want the content to be easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search to the page. I hit upon the idea of using Whistler as an example because his behavior with the Peacock Room was similarly disruptive. If he had not covered the entire room in his decorative zeal, a priceless historical artifact would have survived, one that I believe was so valuable his action should have been deemed criminal or, at the very least, grimly egregious.
I’m speaking of Cuir de Cordoue leather wall hangings that Thomas Jeckyll, the architect who designed the Peacock Room, had placed on the walls. The panels were among the offerings in Catherine of Aragon’s dowry when she married Henry VIII, the Tudor roses symbolizing their union. There’s much more to this story depicting Whistler’s bad-boy behavior in handling the Peacock Room, which I share below to illustrate the tremendous anger that was pervasive in the artist’s life. You can see for yourself in several of his treatises, the book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and the lecture Ten O’Clock.
If you only stopped by for the SEO, you will want to “pop over” to our tutorial “Penalizing for Pop-Ups” on the adroytLABS site in which I share the types of pop-ups that Google deems okay and which ones they penalize. If you’d like to learn more about the Peacock Room and Whistler’s maniacal faceoff, read on.
The Backstory of Decorative Warfare
Originally designed as a dining room in the London home of British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, the entire effort was built so he could prominently display the blue-and-white Chinese porcelain he had collected. The project in the end would become a veritable decorative war! When Leyland hired Jeckyll to design the room in 1876, Whistler wasn’t even involved in the undertaking. Only his painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelain (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain) had a presence in the décor, as Leyland had purchased it from Whistler to be hung in a place of honor above the fireplace as the space was taking shape.
Within a year, the decoration of the room would turn into a caper with wild plot twists that included Whistler commandeering the project. He knew about the effort because he was completing a smaller decorative project in Leyland’s entrance hall when the architect, who was nearing the end of the dining room’s original design, had a mental and physical meltdown.
Whistler couldn’t resist stepping in, though only lightly at first—adding a wave pattern to the cornice and woodwork that was inspired by the leaded glass panel on the pantry door, and traces of yellow on the walls so the motifs on the antique leather wall hangings didn’t clash with the delicacy of the tones in his painting. Leyland approved these changes and left town for an extended period of time, believing the project was essentially finished.
That’s when Whistler gave his imagination free rein and his headlong romp into design nirvana continued unimpeded into the following year. In Whistler’s own words, he admitted he just painted on and on “without design or sketch,” and the decoration grew as he did: “And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection―putting in every touch with such freedom―that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And with the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.”
James Whistler Has His Say
The direction he took resulted in a significant uptick in expenses, which angered Leyland because he had not approved the changes or the additional expenditures. He fired the painter without paying him, and as he continued to withhold the funds—eventually settling with the artist for a bit less than half of what he had billed him—Whistler grew more determined to get even. Since the Leyland family resided in Liverpool, they didn’t often trek to their home in London so the artist was able to gain entry after the project had fizzled.
Whistler managed to stay long enough to paint his pièce de résistance—a mural covering the wall opposite his portrait that depicts warring peacocks representing himself and Leyland. The head of the peacock he created to represent himself includes a silver feather that alludes to a white shock of hair for which Whistler was known. This affronted peacock with his big, innocent eye has a pert “Who, me?” attitude, while Leyland’s antagonistic bird is arrogant, its eyes squinty in rage and its expression malicious. Coins were scattered around its feet, a reference to the patron’s wealth and stinginess.
The entire room ended up in America, without Leyland’s blue-and-white porcelain, when collector Charles Lang Freer purchased it for his Detroit mansion in order to showcase his more eclectic collection of vessels in 1904. The artifacts displayed within the space at the museum named after Freer recreate the room in its Detroit iteration, though the backdrop remains much the same as it was in Kensington when Whistler last saw it in 1877. It’s particularly dramatic when seen with the shutters opened, as is illustrated in the video I shot above. This takes place on the third Thursday of each month, the shutters that are folded away to revel the windows at noon remaining open until 5:30 p.m.
Given Whistler’s aggression and his impulsive attitude, can’t you just see him putting self-aggrandizing pop-ups like the postage stamp above on his site if he were promoting himself today? The dust jacket of his famous Ten O’Clock, a lecture bashing the celebrated critic John Ruskin, notes, “Whistler was one of the most original, if also tirelessly self-promoting artists of the later 19th century.” I think this makes him the perfect choice as our Prince of Pop-Ups. Thanks for stopping by. If you’d like to know more about my services relating to SEO or content creation, please be in touch.
Text of James Whistler Prince of Pop-Ups © adroyt, all rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, the adroyt blog is written by adroyt’s CEO Saxon Henry. Our downloadable knowledgebase can be found at adroytLABS.