One of the treasures in the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection, James McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. issued until October 10, 2022).
Acquired by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in 1943, American painter Whistler’s masterpiece, painted in London in the winter of 1861-1862, stands out from other portraits of “Women in White” with which she dedicated the gallery space in the Gallery has shared permanent collection.
A strong comparison can be found in John Singer Sargent’s 1883 portrait “Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White (Mrs. Henry White)”. The wealthy Daisy White, who comes from a prominent American family and is married to an American diplomat, arranged an errand for her Portrait in which she wears an elaborate stylish crinoline dress adorned with lace, satin and tulle, her hair is styled and her hand is holding a fan and opera glasses.
In contrast, in her portrait, Hiffernan, an unknown model, wears a white cambric house dress that covers her body from neck to toe and blends with the white curtain behind her. Her red hair hangs long and loose as she stands on a fur rug with a simple flower falling from her hand beside her.
In this exquisite exhibition about Hiffernan, her life-size portrait of “Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl” (1864)., where she stands at a mantelpiece, her face reflected in a mirror, and looks at what may be a wedding ring on her finger. In “Symphony in White, No. 3” (1865–1867), she poses in a horizontal position with another model on a white couch.
Aside from Whistler’s paintings, we know that Hiffernan was an intelligent young Irish woman from a poor immigrant family.
There is evidence of how Whistler met her in an early work, Wapping (1860–1864).. Dressed in a low-cut black top, she sits, with two men at a table in the Angel Inn, a working-class watering hole in London’s East End, against a backdrop of ships, sails, rigging, booms and masts on the River Thames.
“Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks” (1864) presents her dressed in a kimono amidst Whistler’s Asian art collection. Some have questioned whether she is a model or just another decorative exotic object.
The Artist in His Studio (Whistler in His Studio) (1865/1872, 1895) is an oil on paper mounted on panel, the only one with them. While she is seated on a sofa at the back of the studio, he faces the viewer with his back to her. A third figure between them seems to separate their realms, where he is the artist and she his muse. Although she seems to be clearly in sight, there’s more to the mystery of this woman who is Whistler’s lover, model and inspiration at the same time.
The second gallery contains prints, letters and stories, including details of Whistler’s other affairs – all providing information about their life together. Unfortunately, there are no photos of Hiffernan. The only other artist known to have painted Hiffernan is Gustave Courbet, whose paintings such as Jo, la belle Irelandaise (1865–1866) represent a different view.
The last gallery offers more paintings of women in white. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)”, 1849–1850, oil on canvas, is the only work before Whistler. It is believed that the symbols of the Annunciation inspired Whistler’s work, while the other paintings presented were influenced by Whistler.
Two works suggest spooky stories – John Everett Millais, “A Somnambulist” (1871) and Frederick Walker, The Woman in White (1871) – thus reminiscent of another work with that well-known title.
Many do not know Whistler’s paintings from a visit to a museum, but from the cover of Wilkie Collins’ sensation “The Woman in White”. The novel, published in London around the same time, revolves around a mysterious woman dressed in white. There is no connection, a point Whistler would make in The Athenaeum. Not only had he never intended to illustrate the novel, he had never even read it!
Whistler reiterated that his painting was simply “a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain” and that his painting had to do with music and poetry to create mood rather than literature telling a Victorian storybook.
Collins’ The Woman in White has another difference. While the story ends with an answer as to who the mystery woman was and what she was about“The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, now at the National Gallery of Art through October 10, 2022, is just the beginning of questions about who she was—Whistler’s Woman in White.
More information about this exhibition can be found here.