You may not have heard Joanna Hiffernan’s name, but you probably know her face, Alastair Smart said in The Daily Telegraph. Born in Ireland in the 1840s, Hiffernan was the mistress of American artist James McNeill Whistler and the model for his 1862 painting Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl – one of the most controversial works of its time.
Depicting Hiffernan in “a white housecoat before a white muslin curtain,” it broke all the rules of contemporary portraiture: its scale was “almost life-size,” a format generally reserved for pictures of “eminent men”; The use of white on white was “radical”. His model’s looks – particularly her “free-flowing” red hair – lent themselves to accusations of indecency. It was a “succès de scandale” that helped establish Whistler’s reputation.
This new exhibition explores the relationship between the artist and his muse through the work (captioned here woman in white) with a number of paintings and prints by Whistler and his contemporaries, including no fewer than 30 depictions by Hiffernan. It is a gripping show that “tells a fascinating story with first-class images”.
By all accounts, Hiffernan was “quite a woman”: Five years younger than Whistler, she was his “mistress, friend, companion and occasional business executive,” Melanie McDonagh said in the London evening standard. Gustave Courbet, for whom she also modeled, recalled her singing Irish songs “with the soul of an artist”. Courbet’s sensual “head portrait” of her is one of the highlights here; another is Whistler’s rendition of Wapping Low Life, in which Hiffernan looks “very much at home.”
But a few striking portraits “do not make an exhibition”. The rest of the exhibition consists mainly of paintings only marginally related to the subject: Klimt’s portrait of Hermione Gallia stands out because it shows a woman in white, while Whistler’s interest in Japan justifies the inclusion of a series of Hiroshige woodcuts that have nothing to do with this topic. “This show is honestly a mess. It doesn’t really do anyone justice.”
I disagree, said Laura Cumming The Observer. The exhibition is packed with captivating images. There are three “magnificent” Courbet seascapes from a vacation he took with the couple; a series of “fascinating” Whistler prints that capture Hiffernan’s “amazing copper curls”; and a “wonderfully dynamic” poster for a play based on the Wilkie Collins novel That woman in white, with which Whistler’s portrait has been associated. Nothing, however, equals the painting itself. Seven feet tall, with “an amazing range of colors in its white palette,” it is an unqualified masterpiece. Small as it is, this is a “nicely focused” exhibit.
The Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (royalacademy.org.uk). Until May 22nd
https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/art/956382/whistlers-woman-in-white-joanna-hiffernan-a-beautifully-focused-show Whistler’s wife in white: Joanna Hiffernan