First Exhibition to Explore the Collaborative Partnership of James McNeill Whistler and Joanna Hiffernan opens at National Gallery This Summer

  • June 01, 2022 14:13

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James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1861–1863, 1872, oil on canvas, overall: 213 x 107.9 cm (83 7/8 x 42 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Harris Whittemore Collection

When James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Joanna Hiffernan (1839–1886) met in 1860, they began a close professional and personal relationship that lasted for over two decades. Featuring some 60 works including paintings, drawings, and prints, The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler explores their partnership and the iconic works of art arising from their collaboration. Bringing together nearly every known depiction of Hiffernan, as well as relevant documents and letters, this exhibition explores who Hiffernan was, her partnership with Whistler, and her role in the creative process. The Woman in White is on view from July 3 through October 10, 2022, in the National Gallery’s East Building in Washington, DC.

James McNeill Whistler, A White Note, 1862, oil on canvas, overall: 36.8 x 31.8 cm (14 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.) The Lunder Collection, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME, 021.2011

Baptized in Limerick, Ireland, Joanna Hiffernan immigrated to London with her parents and siblings—where, as Irish Catholics, they experienced poverty and social prejudice in a class-bound society. When they met in 1860, Hiffernan not only became Whistler's primary model but also helped manage his studio and financial affairs. In 1866, Whistler gave her power of attorney and made her his sole heir in his will. In 1870, after Whistler fathered a child with Louisa Fanny Hanson, Hiffernan and her sister Agnes Singleton raised the boy, Charles ("Charlie") James Whistler Hanson. The child became the primary connection between Hiffernan and Whistler through the 1870s and into the 1880s. In 1886, Hiffernan died of bronchitis after lifelong respiratory problems that may have been exacerbated by her earlier exposure to toxic art materials while working in the studio.

Despite all the records, letters, and works of art that document Hiffernan's life, much remains to be discovered. Personal correspondence is rare, and no photographs of Hiffernan or works of art by her have yet been found. Presenting what is known, the exhibition invites visitors to participate in recovering Hiffernan's humanity by considering the essential mystery of who she was.

"This is the first exhibition to delve deeply into how these exquisite depictions of Joanna Hiffernan were made, what they mean, who Hiffernan was, as well as the broader influence and resonance of Hiffernan's collaboration with Whistler for Victorian culture in the late 19th century," said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. "We are deeply grateful to Professor Margaret F. MacDonald, the preeminent authority on Whistler's art and life, for graciously agreeing to guest curate this presentation in collaboration with Ann Dumas and Charles Brock. I would like to extend our thanks to our lenders for their willingness to share their treasured works of art and to the Terra Foundation for American Art for their support of the exhibition and its accompanying book."

James McNeill Whistler, Weary, 1863, signed with butterfly, c. 1874, drypoint on cream Asian laid paper plate: 19.7 x 13.1 cm (7 3/4 x 5 3/16 in.) Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.353

The exhibition has been curated by Margaret F. MacDonald, professor emerita of art history, University of Glasgow, in collaboration with Ann Dumas, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts and consultant curator of European art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Charles Brock, associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition travels from Royal Academy of Arts, London, to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, July 3–October 10, 2022.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861–1863), one of the National Gallery's most famous and popular works, is presented together with Whistler’s second and third "Symphony in White" paintings, for the first time in the United States. Featuring an anonymous subject—who we identify as Joanna Hiffernan, an Irish Catholic woman with little or no status in British society—these works shifted the essence of modern art from sentimental storytelling and stark realism toward abstraction: viewers were left to speculate about who the striking model might be.

James McNeill Whistler, The Artist in His Studio (Whistler in His Studio), 1865/1872, 1895, oil on paper mounted on panel overall: 63 x 47.3 cm (24 13/16 x 18 5/8 in.) The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, 1912.141 The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

In addition to these visual "symphonies," the first gallery of the exhibition showcases Hiffernan in a variety of other roles and settings, ranging from gritty, working-class surroundings (Wapping (1860–1864), named for a district by the River Thames in London) to exquisitely arranged interiors where she is surrounded by beautiful examples of textiles, pottery, and prints from Whistler's extensive collections of Asian art.  

In the second gallery, etchings and drawings portray Hiffernan as Whistler would have encountered her in the shared spaces of their studio and home in London. The intimate scale of these works on paper—originally intended to be handheld—amplify the personal, psychological dimensions of the pair’s relationship. Notable works include two striking drypoints: Jo (1861) and Weary (1863).

The paintings of women dressed in white in the third gallery were made during the Victorian era by European and American artists who either influenced, or were themselves directly inspired by, Hiffernan and Whistler's most significant and controversial collaboration, Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl. This gallery highlights not only how other artists incorporated the technical challenges of painting white in their work, but also some of the broader cultural associations that the color held for Victorian audiences, from fashion and spiritualism to perceptions of gender and race. Among the works featured here are significant paintings by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), and John Everett Millais (1829–1896). Symphonie in blanc (1908) by Andrée Karpelès (1885–1956) stands out as the sole portrait of a "woman in white" painted by a woman in this exhibition and is a particularly striking example of the pervasive influence of Whistler's "Symphony in White" paintings.

The last gallery of the exhibition returns to the history of Hiffernan and Whistler's partnership. It includes three portraits of Hiffernan by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), from when the three spent time together in the seaside village of Trouville, France, in the fall of 1865. Also on view is a series of illustrations that Whistler and Hiffernan undertook in 1862. Featured in the popular periodicals Good Words and Once a Week, Hiffernan takes on various roles—a cotton-mill worker, a tapestry weaver, a nun—posed as if in moments of anguish, doubt, or peaceful introspection. These images suggest affinities between Hiffernan's own experience and the plight of the women she portrays.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865–1867, oil on canvas overall: 51 x 76.5 cm (20 1/16 x 30 1/8 in.) The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham Bridgeman Images

In addition to the works of art, letters and documents presented in the final gallery shed light on the complex personal relationship between Whistler and Hiffernan. We see depictions of Hiffernan's sisters Agnes and Ellen, Whistler's son Charles—and the woman who supplanted Hiffernan as Whistler's chief model, Maud Franklin. Among the documents on view are letters from Whistler to Hiffernan, a legal document granting her power of attorney, and Whistler's will designating her as his sole heir—items that illuminate the key role Hiffernan played in their unconventional yet enduring partnership.

Albert Herter, Portrait of Bessie (Miss Elizabeth Newton), 1892 ,oil on canvas, overall: 149.9 x 81.3 cm (59 x 32 in.) High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from the Margaret and Terry Stent Endowment for the Acquisition of American Art and High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund, 2000.162

Accompanying Book

Published with Yale University Press, this 232-page illustrated volume provides the first comprehensive account of Irish-born model Joanna Hiffernan's partnership with American-born artist James McNeill Whistler during a period when he was forging a reputation as one of the most innovative and influential artists of his generation. A series of essays discusses how the relationship between Hiffernan and Whistler overturned artistic conventions, and sheds light on their interactions with contemporaries, including Gustave Courbet, for whom Hiffernan also modeled. This catalog traces their resonance for artists, including Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Singer Sargent, and includes new insights into the creation, marketing, and cultural context of Whistler's iconic works.

This book is edited and written by Margaret F. MacDonald, professor emerita and honorary professorial research fellow at the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, with contributions from Charles Brock, associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington; Patricia de Montfort, lecturer in the history of art and at the School of Culture and Creative Arts and research curator for Whistler studies at the Hunterian, University of Glasgow; Ann Dumas, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and consultant curator of European art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Joanna Dunn, painting conservator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington; Grischka Petri, honorary research fellow at the University of Glasgow; Aileen Ribeiro, professor emerita at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; and Joyce H. Townsend, senior conservation scientist at Tate, London, and honorary professorial research fellow in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow.

The book is available for purchase in the shops in the West Building and East Building;; 800.697.9350; or

Tags: american art

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