Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan – raw, boozy and sexual slices of real life and love | Paint
AAmerican cowboy James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his fiery-haired Irish lover Joanna Hiffernan go on a rampage and destroy the art world of Victorian Britain in this immensely enjoyable art and biographical game. It’s a story so well told that it will no doubt inspire an average movie that’s coming soon to a streaming service near you. Don’t expect this; go to the Royal Academy and experience a rewarding adventure with the mothers and fathers of modern art.
To appreciate how new and subversive the double act of Hiffernan and Whistler was in 1860s London, you have to realize how obstructed Victorian art was. A wall of it is enough to set the scene without air. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation is claustrophobic, a narrow image of a small room where the characters are bled to life in their pseudo-medieval aesthetic prison. Then you stare at the opposite wall and a slice of raw, alcoholic, sexual real life jolts you awake.
Whistler’s painting, Wapping, is disorienting. We are in the London docks in the early 1860s. Charles Dickens had recently published Great Expectations. We imagine Victorian London through a Dickensian gothic fog – but Wapping depicts it with a realism that is both harsh and sultry. It’s a modern city, where a bunch of bohemian guys hang out at a riverside bar overlooking a gray and green vista of tangled sailboats and clippers. In the middle of the party, Hiffernan flips her hair back. It’s as if she and Whistler believed in the free and easy world of the Parisian avant-garde.
It was here that Whistler learned to see, when he lived in Paris in the 1850s and met such radical observers as Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire, whose essay The painter of modern life was released when Whistler was working on Wapping. The creamy palette and the ironic, accepting eye he brings to a modern moment by the Thames convey the sentiment of Manet’s masterpieces Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia in London. All the pleasure of the French is transplanted into the England of Gladstone and Disraeli.
What do we know of Hiffernan apart from Whistler’s art? Born in Limerick in 1843, she was 17 when she met the dandified artist. She did not have much formal education but her reading was wide and her opinions shrewd, contemporaries said: she may have been a budding artist as well as a model. The three outrageous celebrity paintings Whistler did of Hiffernan wearing a long white dress are all together here, and they can be considered a true collaboration. It is modeling as a performance art.
The pure white dress, you see, is a joke. There’s nothing virginal about Hiffernan in Whistler’s 1862 Icon Symphony in White, No. 1. She stands above you confidently, and Whistler makes the so-called dress modest suggests her nudity underneath. That’s because she’s standing on a bearskin rug whose soft fur leads your eyes to the edge of the dress, to imagine her bare feet nestled within – a traditional image of sensuality in sculpture that goes back to Renaissance images of David triumphant with his foot in Goliath’s hair.
The painting’s first audience may not have been prepared to imagine this, but they were shocked enough by Hiffernan’s loose red hair and relaxed manner. He displays a love too ready to say his name. Whistler wittily parodies the Pre-Raphaelites with their “muses” and their fetishistic allusions to repressed desire. He might as well have written on the canvas: “I sleep with her.”
The second Symphony in White shows her in a double image: she poses elegantly against a fireplace like a living decoration for the stylish bourgeois house – Japanese fan and all – and yet we see her face, turned away from us, ambiguously meditating in the fireplace mirror. It’s a deepening effect that Whistler gets from Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Whistler and Hiffernan left for Madrid to study Velázquez together, but were distracted when they found a love nest in the Pyrenees.
Whistler watches Hiffernan naked in the studio in an unfinished scene. It shows her asleep and gazing at the shimmering Chinese porcelain while posing in a kimono. He imagines her as a woman of the “floating world”. His mother – as in Whistler’s Mother – urged him to make Hiffernan an “honest woman”: his response was not to marry but to make a will in which he left everything to her.
In case she died before him, in her forties in 1886. The story told by this show, however, culminates in Trouville in Normandy where they stayed with Courbet in the fall of 1865. Eating seafood in a half-empty hotel, painting on the beach, listening to Hiffernan sing Irish songs at dusk – Courbet remembered it as a romantic moment. This part of the story would really make a great little film, if François Truffaut were still there to direct it.
Courbet also painted Hiffernan. He always kept the original with him, painting replicas for sale. But which of the three versions presented is his most prized possession? He must be Jo, the Irish Beauty of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, with his nostalgic passion. There are rumors that it all went further: that Hiffernan could even have been the model for Courbet’s scandalous painting The origin of the world. But curators found no evidence that she was in Paris. Besides, Courbet was struck by her red hair. As a redhead, I can specify that she would also have had red pubic hair, which the model of the Origin of the world did not have.
In fact, the Jo Hiffernan who haunts this exhibition is never objectified, never a piece of artist’s meat. It’s a surprisingly tender love story that also brings to life one of the most groundbreaking moments in art history, when the cobwebs of hypocrisy and pretentiousness were swept away by life itself.
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