Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fiery Joe

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1 : The White Girl (1862)
oil on canvas
83⅞ X 42½ in.

What may be surprising to today's audience of art appreciators is that when James Abbott McNeill Whistler's The White Girl was not accepted for the Royal Academy's 1862 exhibit, the judging panel's rejection was not an aesthetic decision, but a moral one.  Despite Whistler's insistence that the painting, "simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain,"¹ the judges read in the work something a bit more prurient, and did not want a repeat of the scandal from the previous year's exhibit when they mistakingly admitted Edwin Landseer's The Shrew Tamed - a seemingly innocent picture depicting a high-bred horse with a famous equestrienne resting nearby, and which later turned out to be a less-than-innocent picture of a stallion accompanied by Catherine Walters, London's most notorious courtesan.²  The flowers strewn on the floor of Whistler's painting were seen as connoting "deflowering," and the wolfskin rug, with its open-mouthed face looking directly at the viewer and with a woman standing dominant over it, seemed nothing less than carnal.  Whistler, a proponent of "art for art's sake," continued his attempts at distancing The White Girl from meaning, even amending the picture's name to the more poetic, and less descriptive, Symphony in White, No. 1, but it was to no avail;  the work was too suggestive to avoid a deeper interpretation.

But was Whistler being disingenuous?  Were the critics correct;  was there more meaning in the picture than Whistler was willing to admit?

The model in the painting was Irishwoman Joanna Hiffernan, whom Whistler, or at least his friends, at times referred to as "Fiery Joe."  Of modest background but high aspirations, Hiffernan was a force of nature - tempestuous, beautiful, sympathetic, and intelligent - and for several years she acted as Whistler's model, housekeeper, and sometime business manager.  She was also his mistress.


Whistler's relationship with Hiffernan was of course unacceptable to polite society.  His own family thought she was nothing better than a prostitute, and perhaps, Whistler, at some level, thought of her the same way.  In his first well-known painting of Hiffernan, Wapping, Whistler conspicuously portrayed her in such a role, as a coquette playing two customers off each other.  In The White Girl he openly displayed her "lack of morals" in visual terms that Victorian society was sure to understand, and whether it was a comment on that society's views on female sexuality, or it was just Whistler's expression  – consciously or subconsciously – of the couple's relationship, Joanna's unchasteness was on display for all the world to see and condemn.

When The White Girl was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, it caused a greater stir than even Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, which was on view in another part of the same exhibit.  Displayed prominently, Whistler's picture of Joanna regularly attracted crowds at the event, often with with mixed reactions.  Many passersby would stop and stare at the painting in amazement, but after a few seconds spent reading the painting, they would turn to each other and laugh;  embarrassed women would hide their giggles behind their handkerchiefs, while the men would dig each other in the ribs and roar out loud.³  Fellow artists, such as Manet, Alphonse Legros, Félix Bracquemond, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Gustave Courbet, all admired the painting, however, as did many of the French art critics.  This does not mean that the interpretations by these disparate groups was at all different.

Édouard Manet
Déjeuner sur l'herbe

One fan of The White Girl, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, the art critic famous for providing the "Impressionists" with their sobriquet, felt the imagery of the flowers was as clearly readable as if the painting had displayed a broken jug or a dead bird⁴:  the woman in the painting had just lost her virginity.  But Castagnary saw in the figure a young bride of 21 or 22, the morning after her first night in the marriage bed.  He did not see her as a "scarlet woman," and suggested that such a misinterpretation of the legitimacy of her status correlated with the Academicians' inability to recognize the legitimacy of the artwork which formed the Salon des Refusés.  Such a reading though was quite political and calculated, and reflected more an attack at State-run art exhibits than a true evaluation.⁵

Symphony in White, No. 2:  The Little White Girl

Castagnary's interpretation does inspire an interesting analogy, however.  Robin Spencer, senior curator at the School of Art History at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, sees The White Girl as part of a metaphor describing Whistler's own ambitions as an artist.⁶  In the earlier painting, Wapping, Hiffernan is a prostitute;  in Symphony in White, No. 1:  The White Girl, she is a fallen woman; and in Symphony in White, No. 2:  The Little White Girl, in which Hiffernan's focus is on the wedding ring on her finger, she is finally the legitimized wife.  Whistler in his career hoped that he too could rise to a level of respect and acceptance from the lowly level of his beginnings in art.

The love affair between Hiffernan and Whistler ended after six years.  It is rumored that Hiffernan had had an affair with Courbet, for whom she also modeled, but whether the supposed dalliance had precipitated the relationship's dissolution, or if the affair was the result of a relationship that was already crumbling is unclear.  Apparently, Hiffernan never expected that Whistler would marry her, but perhaps she had always hoped that their partnership might be legitimized nonetheless.  Though the two separated, Jo remained in the periphery of Whistler's life, and even raised the son Whistler fathered with a parlor maid years after the breakup.  And at Whistler's funeral, a veiled Hiffernan quietly presented herself, to the surprise of many of the artist's old friends who had not seen the woman in years, and stood in silence at her former lover's coffin for over an hour before slipping away.

Gustave Courbet
Jo, La Belle Irlandaise (1865-66)

It was during the painting of The White Girl in Whistler's Paris studio that Hiffernan first met Courbet. The Frenchman had visited in order to see the painting's progress, and while there, Whistler began showing off Jo, of whose beauty he was quite proud.  Courbet was captivated, but it would not be for several more years until he would finally have the opportunity to paint the red-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty.  

Courbet's first painting of Hiffernan was painted in 1865 at the seaside commune of Trouville in northwestern France.  Whistler and Jo had travelled to Normandy from England to spend some time together, a luxury they had been denied while the artist's disapproving mother, Anna Whistler, was in residence in her son's London home (Jo had been forced to move out of Whistler's home, and could only return to model or do housework).  Courbet was the guest of the Duc de Choiseul at the time, and was quite the local celebrity, with many women visiting his studio and pleading with him to paint their portraits.⁷  While Whistler set out to paint the seaside, Courbet took the opportunity to paint Hiffernan. The resulting work was Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, with which Courbet vowed never to part, and which was, in truth, found in the Frenchman's studio after his death⁸ (Courbet did however paint copies of the painting, three of which, in addition to the original, survive today).

Le Sommeil

The next opportunity Courbet had to paint Jo took place the following year, while Whistler was away on an extended seven-month trip to Valparaiso, Chile.  Whistler had left Jo legally responsible for his home and business affairs while he was gone, but even though Hiffernan was a careful manager of Whistler's money, it became more difficult to keep away the creditors when no work of Whistler's was selling.  In need of an income, Hiffernan returned to the only profession she knew, modeling.  Courbet, an ardent admirer of this "superb redhead,"⁹  employed Jo to pose for a painting commissioned by the Turkish ambassador to Russia, Khalil Bey, who wished to own one of Courbet's notorious nudes.

Courbet would go on to create several explicit and erotic works for Bey.  Paresse et Luxure (Sloth and Lewdness), which Courbet later retitled Le Sommeil (Sleep), was one.  In it, the pale-skinned Hiffernan modeled for one of the two spent women lying asleep on a tousled bed.  The second painting Courbet created for Bey was the pornographic and infamous L'Origine du Monde, which depicts female genitalia, and which has long been rumored to have had Hiffernan as the model.

And now a recent used furniture shop find in France may confirm that Joanna Hiffernan is indeed the model in L'Origine du Monde.  The discovery, an incomplete painting of a woman's head and shoulders, appears to be Hiffernan, and according to Jean-Jacques Fernier, a Courbet expert and author of the the Courbet catalogue raisonné, the painting is the long-lost upper portion of L'Origine.  Other scholars, including several from the Musée d'Orsay, where L'Origine makes its home, disagree with Fernier's conclusion, but he is not moved.  Because of stylistic similarities between the works, the matching alignment of the canvas weave, and the results of chemical and spectographic tests, Fernier has staked his reputation on his belief that the two canvases form a single picture.  If Fernier is correct, the newly discovered canvas may be worth as much as $55 million USD.

Why Courbet would have separated the head from the torso is open to conjecture.  Possibly, it was an aesthetic decision, or maybe it was done at the request of Hiffernan herself.  Perhaps after so many years of having her intimate life put to canvas, she had finally decided that she wanted a greater privacy in her life.  

There is little information available on the latter years of Jo's life.  Rumors are that she married, and moved to the south of France where she ran an antiques business with the same intelligence and acumen she had displayed in her management of Whistler's early professional affairs.  According to the art collector, Charles Freer, who observed Hiffernan at Whistler's funeral, by all appearances, she had done quite well in life.¹⁰ 

¹ Spencer, Robin, Whistler's 'The White Girl': painting, poetry and meaning, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 140, No. 1142, (May, 1998), p. 300.
² Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, retrieved 02/19/13 from [http//,_No._1:_The_White_Girl].
³ Weintraub, Stanley, Whistler:  A Biography, (Da Capo Press, South Boston, 2001), p. 86.
⁴ Spencer, p. 309.
⁵ Idem.
⁶ Idem.
⁷ Weintraub, pp. 115-116.
⁸ Weintraub, p. 117.
⁹ Weintraub, p. 120.
¹⁰  Jiminez, Jill Berk, Dictionary of Artists' Models, (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago, 2001), p. 278.


DesB said...

Always a pleasure and an education to read your excellent blog.

Kate Stone said...

This is fascinating! I love hearing about the lives of famous models. It's amazing too to think of an age when visual imagery was so universal. No one would look at the White Girl today and see anything scandalous.

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