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“To be a good model, you have to give yourself up”: Celia Paul on Joanna Hiffernan and sitting for Lucian Freud

Published 23 February 2022

Ahead of our exhibition exploring James McNeill Whistler and Joanna Hiffernan’s relationship, Celia Paul, artist and sitter for Lucian Freud, meditates on what it takes to be painted.

  • From the Winter 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    People like stories. The continuing popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites is due to the fact that these skilful painters were all storytellers. James McNeill Whistler wanted to go beyond illustration: he wanted to make Great Art. He stated that “The picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest… Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye… without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like”. This assertion was a direct contrast to, and an assault on, the Victorian genre and history painters: the darlings of establishment art.

    Whistler’s defiance isolated him from public approval. He needed a staunch companion as support in his isolation. Joanna Hiffernan, his lover for about ten years and partner for over twenty, was the ideal gangster’s moll. She remained loyal to him throughout her brief life, defending him from public scorn. Here is her description of his iconic painting of her, titled Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl (1862): “the W[h]ite Girl has made a great sensation – for and against. Some stupid painters don’t understand it at all while Millais for instance thinks it splendid, more like Titian and those old swells than anything he has seen – but Jim says that for all that, praps [sic] the old duffers may refuse it altogether”.

  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1861–63, 1872.

    Oil on canvas. 213 x 107.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Harris Whittemore Collection.

  • The old duffers did refuse the painting: it was rejected by the committee for the RA Summer Exhibition in 1862. It is surprising to me that such an obviously alluring painting shouldn’t have been immediately popular; everything about it is seductive, the young woman’s girlish innocence tempered by her sensual mouth and heavy russet hair. Yet perhaps the judging panel decided that its merits were founded on tone rather than character: they needed a narrative. And so Jo and Jim were united against the world. I sense that they were both excited by their status as outlaws. In 2022 the Royal Academy unites them again, in a show exploring the portraits that he made of her.

    Hiffernan was 21 when she met Whistler, who was five years older than her. She was living in Rathbone Place, a street full of artists and artists’ suppliers (there was still a Winsor & Newton art supply shop in Rathbone Place when I was at the Slade School of Art in the early 1980s). Jo earnt some money by modelling for artists. Soon she became Whistler’s main model.

  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Wapping

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Wapping, 1860-64.

    Oil on canvas. 72 x 101.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, John Hay Whitney Collection.

  • She first posed for him for his work titled Wapping (1860-64), a painting of a dockland scene providing the setting for a group of figures, including this new red-haired lover. Whistler describes Jo, in this painting, to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour, as looking like a ‘putain’ (whore). In The White Girl, which was Whistler’s next painting of her, she has become virginal: a white-clad figure standing in front of a white curtain with her red hair flaming around her, in a work that was presented to the public as The Woman in White (a reference to Wilkie Collins’ popular novel of the same title) once it was shown in a Soho gallery in the summer of 1862. Whistler wanted to separate his art from literary reference: he insisted on ‘art for art’s sake’. Yet his paintings of Jo do have a strong anecdotal inference. (I wonder why the young woman is standing on a polar bear rug, for example. Surely there’s a story in that?) Whistler was born and brought up in a middle-class, strictly Christian, American household and his portraits are saturated with religious allusions: Jo is both Madonna and the Whore, Mary Magdalene. Both The White Girl and Wapping contain a narrative element; they are not abstract paintings, as his seascapes and landscapes nearly became.

    In her catalogue introduction to the exhibition at the Royal Academy, co-curator Margaret MacDonald gives a description of Jo: “Born in Ireland and raised in poverty in London, she maintained a close relationship with her sisters throughout her short life. A red-haired woman of rare beauty, with a joyous and passionate temperament, she was a capable manager, patient model, and faithful friend to Whistler – and a caring ‘Auntie’ to his son.”

  • In 'The White Girl', which was Whistler’s next painting of [Hiffernan], she has become virginal: a white-clad figure standing in front of a white curtain with her red hair flaming around her

    Celia Paul

  • The artist had fathered a son with a young woman, Louisa Fanny Hanson, with whom he had had a brief affair. Not much is known about Louisa. Her son, Charlie Hanson, was born in 1870, and he wrote a memoir about his early years. He describes how his mother was unable to nurse him so he was sent to a wet-nurse, Mrs Doubleday, for two years until Mrs Doubleday’s own son died, at which point Jo and her sister Agnes came to collect him. (The fact that so little is said about Louisa’s feelings on having to abandon her son in what must have been deeply humiliating circumstances for her is a sad lack, caused by an absence of supporting documentary material). Jo, together with Agnes, looked after Charlie until her death, aged 44. Jo’s lungs became congested due to the London fog. She died of bronchitis.

    When Charlie was ten, Whistler left him in Jo’s care while he went to Venice with his new lover, 21-year-old Maud Franklin, for some months. Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law, Helen Euphrosyne Whistler, from the city in late 1879: “I begin rather to wish myself back in my own lovely London fogs! They are lovely those fogs – and I am their painter!” It is a tragic irony to know now that the fog, Whistler’s inspiration, was also the cause of Jo’s death.

  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Artist in His Studio (Whistler in His Studio)

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Artist in His Studio (Whistler in His Studio), 1865/72 and 1895.

    Oil on paper mounted on panel. 63 x 47.3 cm.. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection..

  • Whistler wrote to Charlie from Venice in May 1880: “Very anxious to get back to you all and hear all the good accounts of you from Auntie Jo… I am so glad my dear boy to know that you are doing so well with your studies and are so obedient and attentive to your kind Auntie Jo – Tell her with my love that she must expect a letter from me at once – as I shall write tomorrow – indeed often would I have written to you all had I not each day been such a slave to my work.” I wonder how Jo felt about the transition from Madonna/ Whore to ‘Auntie’; she may have welcomed her new caring status but I feel sad to think of her in this role.

    Who wouldn’t want a Jo in their life? Her loyalty and unwavering devotion, forgiving all disloyalty in her beloved because she believes in him unconditionally. A woman artist has to battle with, or against, the world on her own. A woman artist has to do without the luxury of this kind of devotion.

  • The Academy’s exhibition follows two recently acclaimed shows: Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, held in 2018 at New York’s Wallach Art Gallery, before travelling to the Musée D’Orsay, Paris, and Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, a 2019 show at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Both exhibitions claim, in MacDonald’s words, “to recover the overlooked history of women like Laure, the black model featured in Manet’s Olympia, and the Pre-Raphaelite figures such as Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti and Jane Morris”.

    To be a good model, you have to give yourself up: the artist you are sitting for can do what they like with you. All these women models gave themselves up. What is it about women that we need this kind of attention for self affirmation, often sacrificing our own desires for this need? There are societal reasons, of course, but I think it can be more idiosyncratic than that, and I hope that, by exposing the life of a female sitter, this will be the question that women will ask themselves when they see the show. I hope men will consider it, too.

  • Celia Paul , Painter and model

    Celia Paul, Painter and model, 2021.

    © Celia Paul/Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro.

  • I was not a good sitter for Lucian Freud, even when he painted me with tenderness, as in his portrait of me Girl in a Striped Nightshirt (1985, not in exhibition). I felt claustrophobic. Yet, for the duration of my decades-long relationship with him, his scrutiny of me felt vital. It was a relief to me to discover, when we parted, that it wasn’t vital. Shortly after Lucian’s death, I painted a self-portrait which I titled Painter and Model (2012; opposite page, below; not in exhibition). I posed myself in front of the mirror as if I were sitting for him again. With my eyes cast demurely down and my hands clasped obediently in my lap, I am nevertheless a wolf in sheep’s clothing; my once-white dress is splattered with paint and my tubes of paint litter the floor at my feet: I am my own subject matter.

    Jo and I are very different. Jo was not a painter. She accepted unequivocally that it was Whistler who was the artist. The directness of his gaze as he stands for his self-portrait in the painting The Artist in his Studio (1865- 66 and 1895) states clearly his entitlement; Jo is seated, and looks away. She loved to be looked at, and loved to look good. The life of a great model can be like that of a great actress: intuiting what is required in the artist’s, or director’s, vision and making it their own. My involvement with Freud was never collaborative, as Jo’s was with Whistler: they were Lucian’s paintings, never mine. Jo experienced a real sense of ownership: these were her paintings as much as they were his.

  • Lucian Freud, Girl in a Striped Nightshirt

    Lucian Freud, Girl in a Striped Nightshirt, 1983-5.

    Oil on canvas. 250 x 295 mm. Tate, UK © The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images.

  • I was not a good sitter for Lucian Freud, even when he painted me with tenderness, as in his portrait of me 'Girl in a Striped Nightshirt'

    Celia Paul

  • She was painted by an artist other than Whistler too. In the RA’s show, there are three portraits of her by Courbet, including the astonishing Jo, La Belle Irlandais (1865-66). Here you get a real sense of her passionate inner life, her vibrancy. She is dreamily contained within her own reverie, looking into her mirror as if gazing into a fire. Her hair is fire-like too, and seems to scorch her hand as she lifts it away from her face. You feel the weight of her hair, its texture, and the quality of her skin like a dusky rose. She is not innocent and girl-like in Courbet’s depiction of her, but a mature woman capable of deep emotions.

    Courbet had seen La Dame Blanche in the Salon des Refusés in Paris (it had been rejected again, this time by the Salon). Courbet called the woman “an apparition”. The two men formed a friendship and, together with Jo, they went to Trouville to paint seascapes. It was here that Whistler painted one of his most iridescent works: Sea and Rain (1865), in which the ghostly presence of a fellow beachgoer is only half-erased, as if seen through sea-mist. The radiance of the sky, the sea, all breathing with delicate life. A shimmering thing next to Courbet’s heavy sombre sea under a louring sky. The intimacy of the two men is palpable in Courbet’s portrait of Jo – it was generous of Whistler not to feel jealous that Courbet wanted to paint her. Courbet’s painting is a masterpiece.

    Jo Hiffernan will live on through the depictions of her by these two male artists who were fascinated by her beauty. That is how she would have wished it, I suspect. She was a great model, a supermodel, as well as being a loving, intrepid and extraordinary woman. Her devotion was her fulfilment. The act of sitting, of always ‘being there’ was, for her, a consummately creative act.

    Celia Paul is an artist and writer. Her next book, Letters to Gwen John, is published by Jonathan Cape in April 2022

    Whistler’s Woman in White is in The Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries of The Royal Academy of Arts, 26 February — 22 May 2022

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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