Aspiring to the condition of music

Whistler was hard to please. But he would, surely, have been chuffed to find his life-size full-length picture of Joanna Hiffernan – in a white dress against a white curtain – as the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Royal Academy. When, soon after its completion, he submitted the picture for the annual RA show in 1862, it was turned down by the selection committee. As he later recalled, he had to endure an anxious and humiliating hunt through the rooms of the Academy on varnishing day to discover its sorry fate. He eventually found the canvas propped against a wall in the basement.

The picture, he consoled himself, had been too much for the “old duffers” of the Academy. To an age that expected its white-clad figures to be rendered in fine detail, and to represent recognizable characters of history or myth, or distinctive moral types, there was something unsettling about Whistler’s potent image. Its brushwork seemed coarse. And if it told a story or marked a moral, neither was immediately obvious.

Denied a place in Burlington House, the picture found a berth instead at Matthew Morgan’s gallery on Berners Street. Morgan blithely ignored Whistler’s determination to eschew the narrative-bound concerns of Victorian art and advertised the work not under the artist’s then preferred titles (“The White Girl” or “The White Child”), but as “The Woman in White”. It was a ploy calculated to connect the picture with Wilkie Collins’s bestselling novel of the same name, published two years earlier. And as such it proved hugely popular with the public. It mattered little that the image bore no discernible relation to the title character of the book.

Whistler, while pleased by the crowds, did take the time to write to the papers to disavow all connection between his painting and Collins’s book – a novel, he claimed, he had never read. It was his first letter to the press. It would not be his last. Whistler, it should always be remembered, was not just an innovator in art, but an innovator in the whole business of being an artist. If self-promotion through antagonistic self-assertion has become one of the established modes of professional advancement for artists, young and old, it is in no small part thanks to Whistler, who first perfected the “Gentle Art of Making Enemies” via the press . And it began with “The Woman in White”.

On the pictorial front, Whistler’s desire to fashion a new, more purely formal aesthetic code had to battle constantly against the nineteenth-century desire to read stories into images. Was his white-clad figure a mournful penitent, an astonished bride on the morning after her wedding night or – perhaps – a ghost? Commentators were unable to agree. In his campaign, though, he received some unexpected assistance from the French critic Paul Mantz. When “The White Girl” was exhibited in Paris in 1863, at the Salon des Refusés, Mantz praised it as a “Symphonie du blanc”. This transposition of the pictorial and musical arts appealed greatly to the painter. It reflected that urge – shared by other innovative artists of the age – to escape the constraints and expectations of the anecdotal and to blend form perfectly with content. “All art,” as Walter Pater would later fix it, “constantly aspires to the condition of music.”

Although it was never exhibited publicly under the title during his lifetime, Whistler was soon referring to the “The White Girl” as “Symphony in White, No. 1”. And when he painted two subsequent pictures of Joanna in a white dress in a white room, they became “Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl” and “Symphony in White, No. 3”. By the early 1870s Whistler was pressing other musical terms into service for his landscapes and portraits: Arrangement, Nocturne, Harmony. They both proclaimed his formal art-for-art’s-sake concerns and – no less importantly – annoyed the critics.

If the Victorians tended to understand art through narrative and sentiment, our own age seems to need to look at paintings through the prism of biography. And in this instance not simply the biography of the artist, but also the biography of his model. The exhibition – as its title indicates – seeks to “recover” the red-haired figure at the center of Whistler’s three white symphonies: Joanna Hiffernan (or Heffernan, or – indeed – Hefferman.)

As her unfixed nomenclature might suggest, she is an elusive figure. The known facts are few: born in Limerick in 1839, she came to London soon afterwards with her family; her father is variously described as a drunken Irishman and a teacher of “polite” handwriting. In 1860 Joanna was twenty-one, and living in the artistic milieu of what is now Fitzrovia, when she became the twenty-six-year-old Whistler’s model, mistress, companion and sometime studio assistant. It was an arrangement that lasted throughout the ensuing decade. After that they responsibility separated, but remained in regular communication as Hiffernan took on for bringing up Whistler’s illegitimate son by another woman. She died in July 1886, aged just forty-six.

Hiffernan clearly had both charm and energy – as well as masses of sex appeal to go with her masses of hair. Whistler considered the color of her abundant locks the most beautiful he had ever seen: “a red not golden but copper – as Venetian as a dream!”; and it was matched by “golden white skin” and an expression that, on occasion at least, could be “supremely whorelike”. His friends and biographers, Joseph and Elizabeth R. Pennell, though they never met Hiffernan, described her as “a woman of next to no education, but of keen intelligence” and “great charm of manner”. Whistler’s contemporary Alphonse Legros, with whom she fell out, called her “the fiery Joe”. Courbet, who painted a series of pictures (three of which are included in the show) of her battling with her unruly copper tresses, recalled to Whistler the happy holiday season they had all spent together on the French coast in 1865: “Do you remember Trouville and Jo who played the clown to amuse us? In the evenings she sang Irish songs so well because she had the sprit and distinction of art”. It is all slight enough, but engaging.

Whistler’s own paintings of Hiffernan suggest little of either her clownishness or her fire. Some have read melancholy into her somewhat blank expression, but her main role as a model was to be a chord in the symphony. The prints, though, are more intimate and suggestive. The splendid drypoint “Jo” (1861) gives us something of her sparkle and her spirit, along with her great eyes, “as large as those of Juno”. But perhaps even more telling is the print of her entitled “Weary” – exhibited here in multiple “states”. Seated, leaning back, with her hair spread about her head: it is easy to imagine her worn out by the business of posing for Whistler, who notoriously took many, many hours, and many, many sittings, to create his often deceptively simple paintings . Being Whistler’s muse was clearly a tiring business.

In her catalog essay, Margaret MacDonald, the doyenne of Whistler scholarship, is now inclined to discount her earlier belief that Joanna met up secretly with Courbet in Paris in 1866, when Whistler was away in South America, and posed – as the voluptuous redhead – for his erotically charged lesbian bed scene “Sleep”. (MacDonald considers the curl of the redhead’s hair in the picture to be slightly different from that of Hiffernan’s distinctive locks.) It’s a shame. The picture would have been a sumptuous addition to the show.

We do, however, get a batch of interesting non-Whistler works to provide a contrast and a context for the three white “Symphonies”, and the attendant prints and studies. Among the precursors to “The White Girl” are Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s potent Annunciation, “Ecce Ancilla Domini!”, with its white-clad archangel addressing a white-clad virgin, and Frederick Sandys’s obsessively meticulous “Gentle Spring”. (Sandys, the age’s greatest depiction of female hair, longed to paint Hiffernan, but the ever-jealous Whistler refused to lend her for a sitting.) There are some vigorous Courbet seascapes, done at Trouville, to contrast with Whistler’s more vestigial evocations of the same scene, and to suggest how Whistler stepped away from realism towards an almost symbolist conception of landscape.

And to mark the enduring – and Europe-wide – influence of Whistler’s white Symphonies, the curators have brought together an intriguing selection of other white-robed, white-set women by luminaries such as Fernand Khnopff and Gustav Klimt, Anders Zorn and Andrée Karpelès . They hint, among other things, at the way in which white gradually established itself as the visible embodiment of modernity. And on this score there might have been room for Alphonse Allais’s subversive image of 1883, “Première Communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige”. But, even without the anaemic girls in their snowstorm, this show is more than all white.

Matthew Sturgis is the author of, most recently, Oscar: A Life2018

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