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Meet everyone in ‘Whistler’s Woman in White’

Published 12 April 2022

You’d be forgiven for thinking our exhibition ‘Whistler’s Woman in White’ was all about Whistler, but there’s a whole host of artists, models and writers in the show. Get to know them here…

    • Joanna Hiffernan

      Featured in nearly every major work of Whistler’s early career, Joanna Hiffernan has been neglected in art history until now. So, who was she?

      Born in Limerick in 1839, her early childhood dovetailed with Ireland’s Great Famine. Fleeing to the UK, the Hiffernan family likely lived in London’s squalid slums.

      As a working-class, Irish-born woman, Hiffernan’s life would have been difficult. When she met Whistler in 1860 she was modelling – a career which Victorians would have associated with sex workers – and may also have been drawing and painting.

      Within a year of meeting Whistler, she was his chief model. She went on to feature in many of his famous paintings including the three beautiful Symphonies in White.

      Hiffernan was also involved with Whistler’s business dealings, managing studios, residences, and sometimes arranging the sale of artworks. She even cared for his son by another woman.

      Suffering with bronchitis possibly exacerbated by thick London fogs and paint fumes from Whistler’s studio, Joanna Hiffernan died in 1886. Though never legally married, her artistic partnership with Whistler was integral to both their lives and produced unforgettable works of art.

       James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl

      James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864.

      Oil on canvas. 76.5 x 51.1 cm. Tate, London, Bequeathed by Arthur Studd 1919.

    • James Abott McNeil Whistler

      In the 1850s, Whistler had left bohemian student life in Paris to make his fortune in London, but his rise to artistic success would not prove easy.

      Shunning the respectable Sloane Street where some relatives lived, the artist was drawn to the bustling London docks and the sailors who lived and worked here – a friend of Whistler’s said he was “working hard and in secret down in Rotherhithe, among a beastly set of cads.”

      Here, Whistler started his first painting featuring Hiffernan, Wapping, at the Angel pub in Bermondsey (it’s still there if you find yourself walking along the Thames and fancy a drink steeped in art history).

      Whistler then began another unconventional painting The White Girl, later retitled Symphony in White No.1. (below), in which Hiffernan wears a simple, loose gown, and gazes blankly at the viewer. Whistler was a pioneer of aestheticism, which was all about creating ‘art for art’s sake’; his paintings lacked obvious narrative, instead focusing on forms and colours.

      For a Victorian audience used to moral, religious or historical artworks, Whistler’s paintings proved shocking. To the artist’s dismay, The White Girl was rejected by the Royal Academy. 10 years later, John Ruskin would accuse Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (Whistler then sued him for libel, beginning a lawsuit which would ultimately bankrupt the artist).

      Despite these difficulties, in the late 1880s and 1890s Whistler did achieve real recognition as an artist, with a major retrospective of his work in London and the purchase of his work by public collections. He died in 1903.

      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..

    • Wilkie Collins

      Victorian audiences were big fans of ‘sensation fiction’; intricately plotted novels involving lurid crimes, innocent women and melodramatic scenes.

      Wilkie Collins’s sensation novel The Woman in White, first published in Charles Dickens’s journal All the Year Round, quickly became a best seller when it was published in 1861.

      When The White Girl was first exhibited in 1862, Whistler’s gallery capitalised on the novel’s popularity by advertising it as “Whistler’s extraordinary Picture, ‘The Woman in White’” rather than The White Girl.

      Although Whistler publicly distanced himself from the book, stating “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain”, in private he enjoyed the publicity. The apparent thematic connections between painting and novel increased speculation as to the identity of Whistler’s model and contributed to the enduring influence of the ‘woman in white’ idea in 19th-century art and literature.

      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.

    • Gustave Courbet

      French realist painter Gustave Courbet had not been particularly enthusiastic about Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, calling her only “an apparition”, but nonetheless the two men became friends. In the autumn of 1865, Hiffernan and Whistler joined Courbet at the Hôtel du Bras d’Or in Trouville on the Normandy coast. Courbet later wrote to Whistler, recalling this trip:

      “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 remember … the hotel by the sea where we took baths in the icy water and the salad bowl of prawns in fresh butter … which let us paint together the space, the sea … to the horizon, we paid ourselves with dreams and space.”

      Around this time Courbet also painted this portrait of Hiffernan titled Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl, which was so popular he made three copies to sell. He wrote he would “never part” with the original.

      Gustave Courbet, Jo, la belle Irlandaise

      Gustave Courbet, Jo, la belle Irlandaise, 1865–66.

      Oil on canvas. 55.9 x 66 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection. Bequest of Mrs H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

    • Dante Gabriel Rossetti

      Whistler could have had his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s unconventional religious painting Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) in mind as he was working on The White Girl.

      As Rossetti’s painting unsettled viewers by wedding stark realism with the spiritual idealism, so Whistler and Hiffernan later defied the expectations of their audience when they mixed realism and aestheticism in their version of a grand manner portrait.

      Rossetti, Whistler and Hiffernan also socialised, with the couple attending séances at Rossetti’s London house (Whistler thought Hiffernan was “a bit of a medium”).

      Hiffernan certainly knew Rossetti’s golden-haired model Fanny Cornforth (whose ambivalent position in Rossetti’s household resembled hers in Whistler’s) and possibly also Jane Morris, Rossetti’s principal model from 1865, although she did not, apparently, join the circle now known as the “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.”

      At one time, Whistler and Rossetti fell out, and Hiffernan remained supportive of the increasingly difficult Whistler, willing to act as intermediary between him and Rossetti. “I send Jo with this to make my peace,” wrote Whistler to Rossetti, “though of course I know that you never could have supposed me for a minute indifferent to your affection”.

      Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domine! [The Annunciation]

      Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domine! [The Annunciation], 1849-50.

      Oil on canvas. 72.4 x 41.9 cm. Tate: Purchased 1886. Photo: Tate.

    • Gustav Klimt

      While Gustav Klimt and Whistler did not know one another, Klimt’s portrait of Hermine Gallia is subtly influenced by the trend Whistler began.

      Gallia was a Jewish patron of avant-garde art and design in early twentieth-century Vienna. Klimt chose to paint her in a fashionable white dress, and though more sophisticated than Hiffernan’s simple gown in Symphony in White, No. 1, this nevertheless suggests the artist’s awareness of the famous prototype.

      Here, Whistler’s animal rug and blue Chinese carpet are replaced by a modernist carpet with a geometric pattern that is possibly the work of Josef Hoffmann, whom the Gallias had hired to design their home.

      Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Hermine Gallia

      Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904.

      Oil on canvas. 170.5 x 96.5 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1976.

    • Utagawa Hiroshige

      Hiffernan, Whistler and their friend Rossetti shared the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting Asian art and design – Whistler even borrowed one of Rossetti’s “Chinese blue and white rugs” for Symphony in White, No. 3.

      Collecting obviously wasn’t cheap, with Whistler writing to a friend in 1863 : “I have just come from another runaway journey into Holland and have ruined myself in old Japanese China!!”

      Japonisme was often used as a blanket term to refer to artworks and curios from East Asia. We know some master Japanese printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints were in Whistler’s collection, because he painted them in his pictures, including Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl. There, Hiffernan holds a fan based on a design by Hiroshige.

      Utagawa Hiroshige, Iyo Province: Saijô

      Utagawa Hiroshige, Iyo Province: Saijô, 1855.

      woodblock print. 37 x 25.5 cm. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

    • Kawanabe Kyōsai

      While Kyōsai isn’t in this exhibition, you can see his work in the nearby Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries.

      We can’t be certain whether Whistler owned anything by Kyōsai (although many of Kyōsai’s paintings and prints were exported overseas), we do know that he knew of him, because a mutual friend told Whistler of an “other master” in Japan, meaning Kyōsai.

      Just as Whistler was fascinated by Japanese influences, Kyōsai was likewise interested in Western artistic techniques arriving in Japan and included them in his paintings, as well as parodying Western influence in his riotous paintings.

      Kawanabe Kyōsai, Hell Courtesan (Jigoku-dayū), dancing Ikkyū and skeletons

      Kawanabe Kyōsai, Hell Courtesan (Jigoku-dayū), dancing Ikkyū and skeletons, 1871-1889.

      Hanging scroll: ink, colour and gold on silk. 137.1 x 69.3 cm. Israel Goldman Collection, London. Photo: Ken Adlard.