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Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan at the Royal Academy review: doesn’t really do anyone justice

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he Royal Academy’s newest exhibition revolves around one picture: James MacNeill Whistler’s famous portrait of 1862, which failed successively to be exhibited at the RA and the Paris Salon, but did get included in the celebrated Salon de Refusés. It was actually entitled the White Girl, later to become Symphony in White – there would be three of those.

Here it’s called The Woman in White, and the exhibition’s subtitle is the name of the model, Jo Hiffernan – more probably Heffernan, since the unusual spelling derives from ambiguous writing on a baptismal certificate and the latter version is the norm in Ireland – and this exhibition sets out to give an account of their relationship, and of her.

She was an Irishwoman, whose family emigrated from Limerick to London in the hungry 1840s, striking in looks, with hair that artists of the time treasured as authentically Titian red-gold. Her full, wavy dark-red locks (not for Victorians our current prejudice about redheads) were her fortune; her features weren’t fine, but she had beautiful large eyes, white skin and full lips. And if you’re thinking Pre-Raphaelite, you’re not far off. She was Whistler’s model and mistress, friend, companion and sometime business manager, though whether she deserves to be called his muse too, as this exhibition does, isn’t really clear.

Symphony in White no. 1: The White Girl has a number of names, but the model is Joanna Hiffernan

/ National Gallery of Art, Washington

This show sets out to do for Jo Hiffernan (the name the exhibition adopts) what modern scholarship for has done for the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – as in the 2019 exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite women at the National Portrait Gallery. Trouble is, most of these women weren’t artists; they were models, and it was their mute beauty that was what most significant about them artistically.

We don’t get to know much about Joanna, or Jo, at least from the exhibition itself, though there’s some interesting material in the catalogue. In the show we encounter her mostly in Whistler’s depictions, though there’s a lovely quote from Courbet here about her singing Irish songs and doing so with the soul of an artist. Actually it’s Courbet’s head-portrait of her which tells us more about her character than most of Whistler’s; she’s not exactly beautiful in the three versions given here, but sensuous and characterful. The depiction by Whistler that conveys most of her isn’t really the celebrated portrait in white but a portrait of Wapping low life, where she seems very much at home.

Jo, la belle Irlandaise, 1865-6 by Gustave Courbet

/ Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jo seems to have been quite a woman. She met Whistler in 1860 when she was 21, five years his junior. Whistler described her to fellow artist Henri Fantin-Latour thus: “She has the most beautiful hair you have ever seen… she looks supremely whorelike”, though this isn’t mentioned in the actual show. There’s a brief mention here of her generosity in rearing, with her sister, Whistler’s son by another model – there’s a nice drawing of the little boy – but we don’t get an account of the way she was whisked out of Whistler’s home when his formidable, respectable mother came to stay; later Mrs Whistler thought optimistically that Jo might be returned to respectability with the sum of £100. In reality, Jo was Whistler’s administrator and the beneficiary of his will, though she died, alas, early, as did so many artists’ models.

The Girl in White (the exhibition plays on the association at the time with the Wilkie Collins novel) is indeed a beautiful portrait – white on shimmering white: a white dress and a white muslin curtain – and in Whistler’s refusal to give it a narrative title (it would have had, as the catalogue observes, a different reception had it been called The Bride) it did indeed constitute a modernist work.

Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904 by Gustav Klimt

/ National Gallery, London

But several striking portraits do not make an exhibition, and if we don’t find out much about Jo, we are treated instead to a succession of Women in White, only some of which may have been directly inspired by Whistler’s original. Did Klimt’s striking Hermine Gallia derive from Whistler? Maybe, maybe not. There are seascapes by Courbet from Trouville because he shared a holiday with Jo and Whistler there. Woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hiroshiga seem to be included because one portrait includes some of Whistler’s fashionable collection of Japanese pieces. And there is an inexplicable bit of agonising in the introduction to the catalogue about the “whiteness” of the theme, which is just annoying. This show, frankly, is a mess. It doesn’t really do anybody justice.

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is at the Royal Academy until May 22

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