The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan, uses paintings, drawings and sketchbooks to shine a light on the woman behind the muse, the business manager and companion behind the model.
HEADLINE – HEADACHE
Oh what an irony! An exhibition recognising new discoveries and celebrating a Victorian artist’s model with a headline beginning with the name of the male artist whose muse she was. But then, the name Joanna Hiffernan, until now, may mean very little.
WHO? THE MUSE; HER BRIEF LIFE
Joanna Hiffernan was born in Ireland in 1839. Her family were émigrés from Limerick to London during the famine-stricken 1840s. She was probably in her late teens when she started to work as a model and study as an artist, and was part of the bohemian circle into which James Abbott McNeill Whistler became part of after he left America for London in 1859.
When they met, Hiffernan was 21 and Whistler was five years older. He was entranced. In a letter to the painter Henri Fantin-Latour he wrote, ‘She has the most beautiful hair you have ever seen! A red not golden but copper – as Venetian as a dream. Skin golden white or yellow if you will – and with the wonderful expression . . . she . . . looks supremely whorelike.’ Hmmm.
Not long after, Hiffernan and Whistler moved into lodgings together in Rotherhithe – then deepest Docklands – where Whistler, as well as painting the boats, barges and longshoremen of the Thames, embarked on painting (after painting) of Hiffernan (she features in more than thirty of his portraits).
Muse and model she may have been, but she was more than that. She was Whistler’s friend, companion, agent and sometime business manager. She fended off his creditors, borrowed money on his behalf and sold his etchings. Such was his trust, when he travelled abroad without her, he gave her power of attorney over his finances. Their intertwined lives were not merely commercial; with her sister she raised Whistler’s illegitimate son, Charles.
Her health, however, was poor: she had endured a persistent cough, quite possibly exacerbated by exposure to the artist’s lead paint and solvents, and she died of bronchitis in 1886, brought on by a bitter winter. No antibiotics were available in those days.
Contemporary readers of Hiffernan’s story may find aspects of her life difficult to appreciate – unmarried, cohabiting, modelling being another name for sex work. But we must try to understand that she was judged to be extremely successful in her short life, playing a significant part in the artistic world of the late C19th.
HER ARTISTS: THEIR PAINTINGS
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903)
In the summer of 1861, Whistler and Hiffernan traveled to Paris where they set up a studio at 18 Boulevard Pigalle. Their purpose was to produce a major painting for acceptance at the annual competitive exhibitions in London, at the Royal Academy, and in Paris, at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
In C21st century terms this was a determined effort by Whistler to expose and market his talents to the wider world, but in the mid-C19th it was a hard slog. For months, Hiffernan posed for a large portrait described by the artist as ‘the woman in white…Red haired, life size, in a beautiful cambric dress which filters the light through a transparent cambric curtain’.
Getting the painting to completion was difficult enough, but its immediate reception made it, in the short term, notorious. Interpretations abounded: white representing chastity, the significance of the lily, her expressionless face, bare feet, the lusty bear/wolfskin. It was rejected by juries of both the Royal Academy and the Salon in Paris. As compensation, the painting was selected for a place in the prestigious alternative Salon des Refusés – the ‘exhibition of rejects’.
Whistler was disappointed, but not surprised. Hiffernan, displaying a strong and distinctive voice of her own, wrote to his agent:
‘The White Girl has made a great sensation – for and against, Some stupid painters don’t understand it while Millias thinks it splendid … Jim [Whistler] says for all that the duffers may refuse it altogether’.
Contemporary analysis shows that Whistler made many changes to the original canvas, including the title. He continued to paint Hiffernan and, in a trio of pictures, continued the white theme. The paintings were later entitled ‘Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl’, ‘Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl’ and Symphony in White, No.3 all of which are brought together in the Royal Academy exhibition.
Despite its inauspicious beginnings ‘Symphony in White, No.1’ has become an iconic image in the history of art. Following Whistler’s credo of ‘art for art’s sake,’ it is now considered to be the forerunner of what we now call ‘abstraction’. It’s best left to its creator, writing in 1878 in the journal, ‘The Red Rag’:
‘The picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest. As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour.…Art should be independent. Confounding this with emotions is entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.’
The painting remained with the Whistler family until 1896, when it was sold by the artist’s nephew to art collector Harris Whittemore. In 1943, the Whittemore family donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877)
In the autumn of 1865, Hiffernan and Whistler joined Gustave Courbet at the Hôtel du Bras d’Or in Trouville on the Normandy coast. The artists held very different philosophies. Courbet’s technique was more realist than Whistler’s evanescent ephemeral veils of colour, but they still painted together, toiling on the deserted windy beaches. However, their subjects and styles often converged and they produced seascapes of unusual beauty, capturing the shifts of light in sea and sky.
Courbet also painted Hiffernan four times. In Portrait of Jo, la belle Irlandaise, he depicts her pale eyes and copper-gold hair with extraordinary finesse. Unlike Whistler, he looked for, and found, her inner persona: the concentration in her face as she looks at her reflection in the mirror, oblivious to anything else, needs no explanation.
There is speculation that Hiffernan and Courbet indulged in an affaire de cœur whilst in Normandy. What is known is that he refused to sell his original portrait but painted three selling copies, each with minor variations in detail and technique. Shortly before his death in 1877, Courbet recalled Hiffernan in a nostalgic letter to Whistler: ‘In the evening she sang Irish songs so well because she had the spirit and distinction of art. … I still have the portrait of Jo which I will never sell…everyone admires it.’
Professor Margaret F. MacDonald
There is another hero in this cast of characters. The exhibition could not have taken place without the scholarship of Professor Margaret F. MacDonald, the distinguished Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the School of Culture & Creative Arts at Glasgow University. It represents a lifetime of studying Whistler’s œuvre, including his catalogue raisonné. She is responsible for the extensive and meticulous research into Joanna Hiffernan’s unknown backstory which this exhibition highlights.
In an introduction to Professor Macdonald’s Festschrift ‘Connecting Whistler’ and published in 2010, several papers are ‘written by her present and former PhD students who would happily nominate her the mother of all supervisors. In Germany, doctoral supervisors are called ‘Doktormutters’; nobody earns the title of a ‘doctoral mother’ more than her.’
When her ‘doctoral children’ discovered new evidence, she would encourage them: ‘Go on, prove me wrong!’
There is a conundrum with this exhibition and it is a curatorial one. There’s at least two, if not more, exhibitions here. For a display limited to the five galleries at the top of Burlington House there is much squeezed in.
Putting together an exhibition requires many interested and often diverse parties: design, construction, display, hanging, loans, marketing, retail, publications, scholarship and the dreaded admin – all need to work together.
Hiffernan’s portraits by Whistler and Courbet are the stars, but there is much space taken up with ‘ephemera’ – sketchbooks, letters, invoices, preparatory and finished prints. Then, and not least, a series of paintings by those influenced by the ‘women in white’ by such eminences as Gustav Klimt, John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The whole is well covered in the extremely heavy catalogue. Whilst all this meticulous scholarship is relevant to Whistler’s skills, this assortment does not enhance the intended theme – Hiffernan’s own story. Sometimes, less can say more.
Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is showing at the Royal Academy until 22 May 2022. Click here for more informaiton and to book tickets.
Feature image: Installation view of the ‘Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (26 February – 22 May 2022) showing James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. This exhibition is organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.