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When Jimmy Met Jo

What mattered to Whistler about his art was not the subject but the emotions stirred in the viewer.

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl. (Tate Britain/Public Domain)

The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, National Gallery of Art, until October 10, 2022

The partnership between Joanna Hiffernan (1839–1886) and James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) in the first decade of the painter’s career created some of the most beautiful and influential art of the century. The world’s leading Whistler scholar, Margaret MacDonald, always regretted that Hiffernan never got the attention she deserves. The new National Gallery of Art exhibit, curated by MacDonald and the Gallery’s American Art curator Charles Brock, aims to correct that wrong. The exhibition features most of the oil paintings, drawings, and etchings in which Hiffernan appears as well as a few surviving letters and documents. As a result, Hiffernan’s story is told in more detail, with far greater sympathy, than that of the artist himself. 


To make it in the art world in Whistler’s time, an artist’s major work had to be exhibited at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London or the Salon in Paris. If an artist wanted to become famous and rich, there was no alternative. The Academy was a showplace, a market, a place of popular entertainment. At this crucial moment in his career, the ambitious and talented Whistler was fortunate to meet Hiffernan, a charming red-headed Irish lass. She came from a large and impoverished immigrant family and was said to be intelligent and vivacious. In MacDonald’s words, she soon became Whistler's “model, muse, and mistress, common-law wife and partner, friend, and foster mother [of his son].”

The first gallery is devoted to Whistler’s oil paintings of Hiffernan. “Wapping” depicts a working-class inn near the Thames in London’s East End. In the foreground, Jo sits with two men at a table, while behind them is a complex arrangement of the ships, sails, rigging, booms, and masts on the river. Gustave Courbet’s gritty and sometimes sordid realism probably influenced Whistler’s original idea of a prostitute transacting business with sailors. Over four years, the artist radically transformed his initial idea into something more enigmatic and abstract, with Jo and the other two men no longer interacting but lost in their thoughts amid the maze of complex interwoven patterns formed by the sails and rigging on the ships. The painting, accepted by the Academy in 1864, marks Whistler’s progress away from Victorian storytelling and towards the aesthetic of “art for art’s sake.”

The three superb “Symphonies in White” are the show’s center. “The White Girl” is one of the ready NGA’s most beloved paintings. The other two have never been exhibited together in the U.S. All three celebrate the beauty of Hiffernan in different ways. “The White Girl,” painted in a Paris studio over the winter, is a seven-foot-high canvas. With a blank expression on her face, Jo stands on a bear skin rug with a white lily in her hand. The subject—a model posing in a studio— may seem simple to us. Still, it was unprecedentedly ambiguous for its time and probably contributed to its rejection by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. Accepted by the Salon des Refusés, it caused a stir equal to Manet’s controversial “Luncheon in the Grass.” In a letter, Jo commented that the painting “had made a great sensation—for and against. Some stupid painters don’t understand it at all while Millais, for instance thinks it spleandid [sic], more like Titian and those old swells than anything he [h]as seen.”

In “The Little White Girl” (1864), Hiffernan is depicted in Whistler’s London home in Chelsea, standing against a mantelpiece and gazing into a mirror. Her face reflected in the mirror looks pensive. She seems to be staring at the wedding ring on her finger. (In real life, the two were never married.) Jimmy and Jo seem to be aiming at a mood of regret and reverie. 

Hiffernan shares the studio space in “Symphony in White, No. 3” with another model. Unlike the previous vertical works, this has a horizontal composition as Jo dreamily lounges on a white couch. The first work by Whistler to be exhibited with a musical title, suggested by a French poet, prompted him to add the same title to his two early paintings of Jo in a white dress. Whistler wanted to stress that the aesthetic experience of his paintings was closer to music than literature; the mood was more important than the subject matter. 


Fascinated by Japanese and Chinese art, the painter featured Jo holding a Japanese fan in her right hand in “Symphony in White No. 2.” In “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks,” she appears as a Chinese artist/dealer painting a pot. Other paintings of Hiffernan in an Asian mode are on display at the Freer Gallery on the Mall, which owns the most extensive collection of the artist’s paintings, drawings, watercolors, and prints in North America. 

Jo and Jimmy’s only painting depicting them together is the last painting to feature her. In “The Artist in His Studio,” she sits on a sofa in the back of the studio facing the viewer while another model stands with her back to us. Whistler’s collection of Chinese porcelain and Japanese scrolls is on display. The artist sees the room in a mirror as he paints the canvas, echoing in a minuscule way Whistler’s baroque hero Velasquez’s masterpiece “The Maids.” The painter shows his global reach and ambitions by combining Eastern and Western Art in one picture.

Hiffernan posed for a series of prints on display in the show’s second room. In “Jo,” her effervescent personality shines through. A remarkably tender picture, “Weary,” shows Jo collapsed in a chair as if after hours of posing. A few prints demonstrate the collaborative nature of the artist-model relationship, Whistler’s skill as a draftsman and Hiffernan’'s versatility as a model. She even poses as a nun!

There is a third room devoted to a few works that may have influenced Whistler’s “White Girl” and many others that were inspired by it. Especially influential was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Annunciation.” John Singer Sargent’s “Fumée d’ambre gris” wins the prize for its virtuoso display of white-on-white painting. 

The final room features Gustave Courbet’s paintings of Hiffernan. Unlike Whistler’s portraits of a chaste ideal woman, Courbet’s “Jo, la belle Irlandaise” is voluptuously sensual. The French painter’s relationship with Hiffernan is a controversial topic, as is the possibility that she posed for Courbet’s X-rated “Origin of the World.”

When Whistler left for Chile in 1866, he made Hiffernan his executor and sole beneficiary in his will. A few years later, she and her sister brought up Whistler’s only child, Charlie, his son by another woman. The painter and Hiffernan remained a part of each other’s lives until she died in 1886. Her death from bronchitis may have been exacerbated by London’s air pollution and lead poisoning caused by years of exposure to paint.

The paradox of the exhibition is that what mattered to Whistler about his art was not the subject but the emotions stirred in the viewer by the delicately restrained colors, simplified compositional balance, and dream-like atmosphere. Yet what matters to the curators, and probably most visitors, is the subject, Joanne Hiffernan. Whistler’s credo of art for art’s sake is flipped on its head to give us a show of art for Jo’s sake.