Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan

If you have never read Wilkie Collins’s novel Woman in White written in1859, I urge you to remedy the situation before you visit a new exhibition opening in February. (So, no excuses, you have plenty of long winter nights to catch up). It is a wonderful Victorian tale of intrigue surrounding a mysterious woman lost in London and dressed entirely in white. A new exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts also aims to ‘cherchez la femme’, in this case the flame-headed Joanna Hiffernan, through the work of American painter and printmaker, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903).

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan will consister of around 70 works from paintings to prints. This is the first exhibition to explore Hiffernan’s role of muse, and her in part in establishing Whistler (1905 – 1944) as one of the most influential artists of the late 19th century. Irish artists’ model, Hiffernan (1843-1904), was involved in both the artist’s creative and personal life for more than twenty years.

L to R: Symphony in White, No 1, The White Girl, 1862(1), James Abbott McNeill Whistler which has been linked to Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White; Weary, 1863, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Main post image: Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl, 1866, Gustave Courbet. Photos courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts.

Hifferman and Whistler’s close professional and personal relationship, and her role as friend, model, lover and collaborator, lasted for a remarkable two decades, yet, as is often the case, previously there has been little exploration to discover more about her role and influence in Whistler’s life.

It is surely no great surprise that their association ran deeper than artist and muse. By its nature the relationship was a deeply intense and intimate connection developed during many hours spent together in the studio in the creative process. In this situation, if there isn’t a significant interrelation before work begins intimacy, whether emotional and/or physical must surely evolve over time.

L to R: Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904, Gustav Klimt; Purple and Rose,The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, 1864, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Photos courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl was Whistler’s first famous work. While it was naturally linked to contemporary Wilkie Collins’s highly successful novel the painting received varying reviews. An “allegory of a new bride’s lost innocence” thought the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary, no doubt due to the virginal white dress, long flowing hair and white lily clutched in her hand. Some considered it a work in the Pre-Raphaelite manner (again, the wild, unbraided hair). Others felt that the bear skin rug upon which Hiffernan stands represented masculinity and lust. That last idea is not entirely convincing as the dress worn is formal, tailored and all encompassing. In any event, the conservative Royal Academy at the time refused the portrait. Instead, it was shown in a private gallery under the title The Woman in White.

The 2022 show brings together portraits of Hiffernan, ranging from innovative paintings to prints and drawings that challenged cultural norms. Three of the artist’s Symphony in White works will be on display alongside works by Gustave Courbe of the French realist school, who also painted Hiffernan when she and Whistler joined Courbet one summer in Normandy.

Both Whistler and Hiffernan’s legacy will be further revealed through a final chorus of “woman in white” paintings inspired by Whistler’s Symphony including: the English painter and illustrator, John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896), who was also one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; and the Austrian symbolist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918).

Whistler went on to paint more portraits of Hiffernan in white. The Little White Girl, Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen (1864) portraying Hiffernan in Asian dress and surroundings. At this time Whistler became close to Gustave Courbet. However, when Hiffernan modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and their relationship deterioriated.

It’s recorded that when they parted Hiffernan helped to raise Whistler’s son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870–1935), the result of an affair with a parlour maid. There’s little recorded about Hiffernan after 1880 although it is possible that she married and, in 1882, was reported as living in Nice selling antiques and paintings. Joanna Hiffernan outlived Whistler by a year and appeared at his funeral heavily veiled to pay her last respects.

Whistler’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites and the influence of Japonisme on his works will also be examined.

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan at The Royal Academy runs from 26 February – 22 May 2022.

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