James McNeill Whistler’s 1861-1863 “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” is a deeply troubling painting. It is difficult to see where the personal magnetism of the woman represented therein ends and where the art begins. Perhaps there is no line to be discerned and the beauty of the woman depicted, Joanna Hiffernan, is too deeply woven in the art to be disentangled from Whistler’s almost demonic efforts to amplify it in paint.
The painting, one of Whistler’s finest achievements, was known to his contemporaries as “The Woman in White.” It represents Hiffernan full length, in a white dress, holding a white flower, standing against the backdrop of a luxurious white curtain. Her hair is auburn, her skin porcelain, her full lips the color of cherries, and her eyes a bit too large, with perfectly round pupils, like the eyes of a cartoon innocent.
Hiffernan wasn’t just the model for “Symphony in White.” She was also Whistler’s companion and lived and traveled with him for years. She was deeply involved in his personal and business affairs. They were effectively married and their lives were intertwined for more than 20 years. Whistler also gave her his power of attorney and made her his sole heir in his will, though she predeceased him.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington is exploring that relationship in a midsize exhibition of some 60 works that brings together most of the known images Whistler made of Hiffernan, including “Symphony No. 1” (part of the National Gallery’s collection) and the closely related paintings “Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl” (from the Tate in London) and “Symphony in White, No. 3” (held by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England).
The goal of the show, which was first seen at the Royal Academy of Arts in London earlier this year, is to resurrect, as much as possible, some sense of who Hiffernan was. The biographical details are basic: She was born in 1839 to poor Irish parents who later moved the family to London, where she met Whistler in 1860. She appears in paintings, drawings, etchings and drypoint renderings, sometimes as the central figure, sometimes as a talismanic interloper, as in the small, sketchy figure in a white dress seen in the foreground of the river scene “Battersea Reach,” from 1862-1863.
Early in their relationship, before Whistler fathered a child with another woman, the artist described Hiffernan’s beauty in a letter to a friend: She “looks supremely whorelike,” he gushed. That speaks volumes about Whistler, the pervasive misogyny of the world he lived in, and his particularly fraught relationship with a woman who would help raise a child he had with another woman. Whistler’s friends considered Hiffernan charming and vivacious, though uneducated. Her social allure was attributed to his good influence and the reflected luster of his sophistication.
That Whistler compared a woman he must have loved to a prostitute, at a time when sex work had zero dignity, suggests his feelings for her were thoroughly narcissistic. He could project onto her whatever he desired, depicting her in virginal white while eroticizing her status as a woman living outside the conventional patterns of bourgeois sexual propriety. Her beauty served him, sometimes literally as a model for his art, and otherwise as an adornment to the glamorous social life he struggled to pay for throughout his career. Hiffernan held no fixed position in his household, and when his mother came to stay with him in London, he moved her to another domicile (“I had a week or so to empty my house and purify it from cellar to attic!”).
Even Hiffernan’s beauty doesn’t seem to be entirely her own, at least not in the images Whistler made of her. In the first “Symphony in White,” she seems vulnerable and defenseless, her arms held loosely at her sides, her stance retiring, her presence registering as an emanation from the white curtain behind her. She could be lively and passionate, as we know from accounts of her by others, but in this painting, all the agency and psychological presence have been transferred from the model to the snarling face of the bearskin rug on which she stands.
She was Whistler’s chameleon, serving as a model for book illustrations, including one in which she appears as a nun. In another painting, he dressed her in a kimono and surrounded her with Asian porcelain. Even when he gets close to giving her some genuine psychological presence, as in an 1861 drypoint called simply “Jo,” she seems to be dissolving into the background, her wild hair fusing with the animated lines that define the darkness behind her.
To some extent, this is the fate of the model, especially models in the 19th century who worked for artists like Whistler. The curators stress the collaborative aspect of the relationship, but the artist was at pains to erase it. Audiences who saw the painting dubbed it the “Woman in White,” recalling Wilkie Collins’s thrilling novel of the same name, but Whistler chose the musical name “symphony” to emphasize not the subject of the work, but the brilliance of the composer. “The picture should have its own merit, and not depend on dramatic, or legendary, or local interest,” he wrote. It should “appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it.”
This is an early appeal to ideas of artistic formalism that would later triumph in abstraction. It also draws that elusive line — between the beauty of the person represented and the beauty of the painting itself — almost entirely on the artist’s side of the ledger.
Whistler’s plea can’t be entirely dismissed. If there is a distinction to be made between artistic images of beautiful people and the beautiful people one sees on Instagram or in a fashion magazine, it must have something to do with art, with formal arrangements, design choices, underscoring and heightening of certain characteristics, blurring or erasing others.
But for the artist’s model, who was also his lover and effectively his wife, this all adds up to a suffocating and closed system. Just as her beauty makes us naturally curious about her inner life, the artist insists we erase that curiosity. She is there, compelling us to wonder about everything from the tone of her voice to the rhythm of her laughter. But he claims that the only legitimate wonder should be directed at him, at his skill and accomplishment, which was indeed formidable.
Curators and scholars are now in argument with that system. Exhibitions like this one, and the groundbreaking 2018 show “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” aim to recapture some sense of those who were erased through the centuries by the inexorable commodification of people, usually women, in art.
It’s an important and exciting new direction in scholarship, but often very frustrating because the erasure is sometimes complete. In the case of Joanna Hiffernan, the traces that are left only make that erasure seem larger and more haunting. Look to another painter, Gustave Courbet, who also painted Hiffernan. Several versions of his portrait of her are in the National Gallery exhibition and, intentionally or accidentally, they give us one small clue utterly absent from Whistler’s images.
How did she negotiate any independence or power in what was a terribly unequal relationship? I’m just guessing, but based on Courbet’s more psychologically acute representation, she almost certainly knew how to cut Whistler down to size, trim his sails and render up to him an image of his own mean-spirited, churlish self, in all its ugliness.
The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler Through Oct. 10 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov.