From February to May 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts explored the work of James McNeill Whistler, particularly those featuring a certain red-haired woman. Whistler’s paintings of Joanna Hiffernan helped him forge his reputation as one of the best-known names of the late 19th-century Aesthetic Movement. Rather than solely focusing on the artist, the RA uncovered the role Hiffernan played in Whistler’s life and her influence on future artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites.
Hiffernan’s reputation as the “Woman in White” developed after posing for Whistler’s painting The White Girl (1861-63), later renamed Symphony in White, No 1. Two more Symphonies in White followed, which inspired other artists to paint similar scenes. Although Hiffernan posed for Whistler on several occasions, her name remained synonymous with the figure in a white cambric dress.
Joanna Hiffernan was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1843, but moved with her family to London at the age of two to avoid the Irish Potato Famine. Her father, Patrick Hiffernan, taught penmanship but had a reputation for being a stereotypical Irish drunkard. Hiffernan received a modest education, evidenced by her letters full of spelling errors.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to Anna McNeill (1804-81) and George Washington Whistler (1800-49). His mother is the subject of one of Whistler’s most famous paintings, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, more commonly known as Whistler’s Mother (1871). His father worked as a railroad engineer and is credited with introducing the steam whistle to American trains. In 1843, Whistler moved to St Petersburg, Russia, where his father was hired by Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) to build the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway.
In Russia, Whistler attended the Imperial Academy of Arts, and when he was not studying, he spent time visiting family in London. Two years before the completion of the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway, Whistler’s father contracted cholera and passed away. At 15 years old, Whistler only had vague notions about becoming an artist, so he returned to America with his mother, who sent him to Christ Church Hall School, hoping he would become a minister.
Spending more time with his sketchbook than studying, Whistler decided a career in religion was not for him, so he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. This proved fruitless, and Whistler’s inability to take orders from authority resulted in his dismissal. For a while, Whistler worked as a draftsman, mapping the US coast for military purposes. Whilst this work was tedious, Whistler learned the technique of etching, which proved beneficial in his future career as an artist.
In 1855, Whistler left America and settled in Paris, where he adopted the lifestyle of a bohemian artist. He briefly studied at the Ecole Impériale and received tuition from the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre (1806-74), who taught Whistler the importance of line and tonal harmony. Whistler became friends with the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), who introduced him to the circle of Gustave Courbet (1819-77). As the leader of the Realism movement, Courbet influenced Whistler and encouraged him to start painting professionally.
In 1858, Whistler visited his half-sister Deborah Haden in London, where he eventually took up accommodation in Rotherhithe, near the River Thames. In 1860, he met Joanna Hiffernan for the first time and fell in love with her copper coloured hair. Whistler started including Hiffernan in his paintings, and she eventually became his lover.
Whistler’s iconic Symphonies in White marked a turning point in his career and introduced Hiffernan to the world. Whistler began the first of the three paintings in Paris in 1861 and submitted it to the Royal Academy in May 1862 under the title The White Girl. Much to Whistler’s disappointment, the Academy rejected the painting and sent it to Berners Street Gallery, where it was displayed with the title The Woman in White. Unfortunately, the painting became associated with Wilkie Collins’ (1824-89) novel of the same name, which was not Whistler’s intention. “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain.”
In 1863, Whistler sent The White Girl to the Paris Salon, who also rejected it. Many paintings at the time contained a narrative, whereas Whistler’s did not. Later that year, the painting hung in the Salon des Refusés, where one critic wrote it was a picture of a “charming phantom”.
Whistler produced his second portrait of Hiffernan in white in 1864, which he titled The Little White Girl. Dressed in a white muslin dress, Hiffernan posed in front of a fireplace and mirror at Whistler’s new house in Chelsea, London. In her right hand, she held a fan made by the Japanese artist Hiroshige (1797-1858). Japonisme, meaning artworks from Japan and other East Asian countries, was popular amongst European artists in the 19th century. Whistler owned a vast collection of Asian art, including prints, fans and ceramics. The blue and white vase on the mantlepiece is one example of the items he collected.
As part of her outfit for The Little White Girl, Hiffernan wore a wedding ring on her left hand. The reason for this is uncertain because Hiffernan never married. One theory involved Whistler’s family, who considered models to be little better than prostitutes. Hiffernan only posed for Whistler and a few friends, but this did not stop Whistler’s mother from objecting to their relationship. Some believe the comments about models and prostitutes covered up Whistler’s mother’s opinion about people of lower social classes.
Whistler’s third painting in the series featured Hiffernan in the same dress as the first painting, reclining on a white sofa. Unlike the previous artworks, this one included a second figure in a pale yellow silk dress. The other woman was the professional model Emelie “Milly” Eyre Jones (1850-1920), who posed for several artists, including Albert Moore (1860-1933) and Frederick Sandys (1829-1904). After hearing that Milly was posing for Whistler, Sandys announced he wished to paint Hiffernan, but Whistler refused to “lend” her. Instead, Sandys painted Milly in a white dress for Gentle Spring (1865).
Before settling on the final composition, Whistler tried out various poses for his models. Some of these sketches still exist, including one Whistler sent to the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). When Whistler eventually completed the painting, he declared the figure of Hiffernan “is the purest I have ever done.” Several artists admired the artwork, including Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who made sketches of it.
In 1867, the third painting earned a place at the Royal Academy under the title Symphony in White. Focusing on the colours rather than the subject, one critic called it “an exquisite chromatic study,” and several people compared it with the previous two portraits of Hiffernan in white. As a result, the two earlier paintings gained the names Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl and Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl. The focus on colour and harmony rather than a narrative inspired the Aesthetic Movement, which influenced future generations of artists who began producing “art for art’s sake”.
Whilst the Symphonies in White are Whistler’s most famous depictions of Hiffernan, he used her as a model for many other works, including etchings. During his career, Whistler produced over 490 etchings and drypoints, making him one of the major figures in printmaking of the 19th century. Most of his prints were based on the people and places around him, particularly his models.
Some of Whistler’s finest portraits of Hiffernan were drypoints rather than paintings. Drypoints involved etching into a copper plate, allowing the artist to emphasise shapes and tones through a series of lines and cross-hatching. After rubbing ink into the etched lines, paper is laid on the plate and pulled through a printing press. Often, the plate went through the press several times, producing prints of varying darkness as the ink began to run out. Whistler printed over forty impressions of his etching Weary (1863) before settling on one to hang at the Royal Academy.
Whistler’s paintings and etchings are considered two separate forms of art, yet prints he collected by Hiroshige and other Asian artists, frequently appeared in his artwork. Whistler owned an impressive collection of Asian art, including fans, china and rugs, which also feature in his work, for instance, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864). For this painting, Hiffernan posed as an Asian woman painting a pot. Surrounded by examples of Whistler’s porcelain collection, Hiffernan appears to sign her most recent creation with a thin paintbrush.
The title of the painting, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, references many aspects of the scene. Hiffernan wears a purple and white kimono decorated with pink roses, hence the first half of the title. Lange Leizen is a Dutch phrase meaning “long lines”, which many English-speaking people misinterpreted as “long Elizas”. Some patterns on Chinese porcelain featured tall women, which is what led to the confusion. The Six Marks referenced the signature and date written by the potter on each of their creations.
In 1865, Whistler and Hiffernan spent time in Trouville on the Normandy coast of France, where they joined the artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77) at the Hôtel du Bras d’Or. Courbet encouraged Whistler to experiment with seascapes, using his skills with colour and tones to capture the subtle shifts of light in the sea and sky. Meanwhile, Courbet insisted on painting Hiffernan, which on this occasion, Whistler allowed.
Courbet’s painting of Portrait of Jo, also known as La belle Irlandaise (The Beautiful Irish), captures Hiffernan’s copper-gold hair, contrasting it with her pale skin and eyes, which peer into a handheld mirror. Enamoured with the result, Courbet refused to sell the original but made three copies, each containing minor differences and details. Letters written from Courbet to Whistler ten years later indicate he was still infatuated with Hiffernan. “Do you remember Trouville and Jo who played the clown to amuse us? 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.” Today, art historians argue about which copy is the original.
In 1866, Whistler travelled to Valparaiso in Chile, leaving Hiffernan in London. During his seven-month absence, Whistler gave Hiffernan power of attorney over his affairs, including selling his artwork, which she did under the pseudonym, Mrs Abbot. During this time, Hiffernan may have travelled to France to pose for Courbet’s painting Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), which depicts two naked women asleep in bed. Rumours suggest Hiffernan and Courbet conducted an affair, and Whistler and Hiffernan’s relationship came to an abrupt end.
Very little is documented about Hiffernan’s life after her split from Whistler. For some time, she looked after Whistler’s son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870–1935), the result of an affair with a parlour maid. Whistler was often away, but he produced a drypoint sketch of his son during the late 1870s and an etching of Hiffernan’s sister, Bridget Agnes Hiffernan (1845-1921). The 1881 census records Hiffernan and Charles living with Bridget at 2 Thistle Grove in London.
The Royal Academy records Hiffernan’s death in 1886 and suggests her sister cared for her during a short illness. Other sources claim Hiffernan died in 1903 after attending Whistler’s funeral. The art collector Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) wrote, “As she raised her veil and I saw … the thick wavy hair, although it was streaked with grey, I knew at once it was Johanna, the Johanna of Etretat, ‘la belle Irlandaise’ that Courbet had painted with her wonderful hair and a mirror in her hand…. She stood for a long time beside the coffin—nearly an hour I should think…. I could not help being touched by the feeling she showed toward her old friend.” The Royal Academy believes this was Hiffernan’s sister, who people mistook for Joanna Hiffernan.
Following Whistler’s split from Hiffernan, he began using Maud Franklin (1857-1939) as his muse and mistress. Records suggest he did not treat her well, later marrying the artist Beatrice Godwin (1857-1896) in secret to avoid a furious Maud Franklin interrupting the marriage ceremony. Sadly, Beatrice passed away from cancer only six years into their marriage. Whistler never overcame the death and spent the majority of his remaining years painting minimalist seascapes.
Despite the initial rejection of Whistler’s The White Girl by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, the three Symphonies in White inspired many artists during and following Whistler’s lifetime. Hiffernan recorded that John Everett Millais (1892-86) particular liked the paintings and used them as inspiration for The Somnambulist (1871). Using a model with a remarkable resemblance to Hiffernan, Millais painted a woman in white, sleepwalking along the edge of a cliff. Whilst the figure is an obvious link to Whistler’s portrait in technique and composition, the painting contains a dramatic narrative, possibly inspired by Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-35) romantic opera La sonnambula (1827).
Focusing on Hiffernan more than Whistler, the exhibition at the Royal Academy makes visitors examine the artworks differently. Rather than judging the artist on his quality of painting, the exhibition’s narrative explores the lives of both Whistler and his model. Instead of looking at The White Girl as an anonymous woman, the Academy gives her a name, a life and a purpose. Whilst it may not have been the curator’s intention, Whistler’s Woman in White compliments recent exhibitions, television programmes and books that aim to draw attention to women of the past, whose importance has been hidden for so long.
Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is open until 22nd May 2022. Tickets cost £15 for adults, except for Friends of RA, who may visit for free.