National Gallery’s Whistler exhibition seeks to resurrect ‘The Woman in White’


James McNeill Whistler’s 1861-1863 “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” is a deeply disturbing painting. It is difficult to see where the personal magnetism of the woman depicted there ends and where the art begins. Perhaps there is no line to discern, and the beauty of the woman depicted, Joanna Hiffernan, is too deeply ingrained in the art to be divorced from Whistler’s almost demonic efforts to amplify it in the paint.

The painting, one of Whistler’s finest achievements, was known to his contemporaries as “The Woman in White”. It depicts Hiffernan full length, dressed in a white dress, holding a white flower, standing against the backdrop of a luxurious white curtain. Her hair is auburn, her skin porcelain, her fleshy lips the color of cherries, and her eyes a little too big, with perfectly round pupils, like the eyes of an innocent cartoon.

Hiffernan wasn’t just the model for “Symphony in White.” She was also Whistler’s companion and lived and traveled with him for years. She was deeply involved in his personal and professional affairs. They were effectively married and their lives had been intertwined for over 20 years. Whistler also gave her his power of attorney and made her his sole heiress in his will, although she predeceased him.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington explores this relationship in a medium-sized exhibition of some 60 works that brings together most of Whistler’s known images of Hiffernan, including “Symphony No. 1” (part of the collection of the National Gallery) and the closely related paintings “Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl” (from the Tate in London) and “Symphony in White, No. 3” (held by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England).

A seductive and disturbing portrayal of race and beauty

The aim of the show, which was first seen at the Royal Academy of Arts in London earlier this year, is to resurrect, as much as possible, some idea of ​​who Hiffernan was. Biographical details are basic: she was born in 1839 to poor Irish parents who later moved the family to London, where she met Whistler in 1860. She appears in paintings, drawings, etchings and drypoint renderings , sometimes as the central figure, sometimes as a talismanic intruder, as in the small, sketchy, white-robed figure seen in the foreground of the “Battersea Reach” river scene, of 1862-63.

Early in their relationship, before Whistler fathered a child with another woman, the artist described Hiffernan’s beauty in a letter to a friend: She “looks supremely fucking,” he said. exclaimed. It says a lot about Whistler, the pervasive misogyny of the world he lived in, and his uniquely strained relationship with a woman who would help raise a child he had with another woman. Whistler’s friends considered Hiffernan charming and lively, despite having no education. His social appeal was attributed to his good influence and the reflected brilliance of his sophistication.

That Whistler compared a woman he must have loved to a prostitute, at a time when sex work had no dignity, suggests that his feelings for her were deeply narcissistic. He could project anything he wanted onto her, portraying her as virginal white while eroticizing her status as a woman living outside the conventional patterns of bourgeois sexual propriety. His beauty served him, sometimes literally as a model for his art, and if not as an adornment for the glamorous social life he struggled to pay for throughout his career. Hiffernan had no fixed position in his house, and when his mother moved with him to London, he moved her to another home (“I had about a week to empty my house and cleanse it of the basement in the attic ! “).

In Chicago, immersed in the work of Cézanne

Even Hiffernan’s beauty doesn’t appear to be entirely her own, at least not in the images Whistler has made of her. In the first ‘Symphony in White’, she appears vulnerable and defenseless, her arms loosely tied at her sides, her position withdrawn, her presence registering like an emanation from the white curtain behind her. She might be lively and passionate, as we know from other people’s accounts, but in this painting all the agency and psychological presence has been transferred from the surly-faced model of the bearskin rug onto which she stands.

She was Whistler’s chameleon, serving as a model for book illustrations, including one in which she appears as a nun. In another painting, he dresses her in a kimono and surrounds her with Asian porcelain. Even when he is about to give her a real psychological presence, as in an 1861 drypoint called simply “Jo”, she seems to dissolve into the background, her wild hair merging with the lively lines that define the darkness behind her.

To some extent, this is the fate of the model, especially 19th century models who worked for artists like Whistler. The curators insist on the collaborative aspect of the relationship, but the artist has tried to erase it. Audiences viewing the painting dubbed it the “Woman in White”, recalling Wilkie Collins’ thrilling novel of the same name, but Whistler chose the musical name “symphony” to emphasize not the subject of the work, but the genius of the composer. “The image must have its own merit and not depend on dramatic, legendary or local interest,” he wrote. It must “appeal to the artistic sense of the eye or the ear, without confusing it with emotions which are entirely foreign to it”.

This is a first appeal to the ideas of artistic formalism which will later triumph in abstraction. He also draws that elusive line – between the beauty of the person depicted and the beauty of the painting itself – almost entirely on the artist’s side of the ledger.

Whistler’s plea cannot be entirely dismissed. If there’s a distinction to be made between artistic images of beautiful people and the beautiful people you see on Instagram or in a fashion magazine, it must have something to do with art, with formal arrangements , design choices, highlighting and accentuating certain features. , blurring or erasing others.

But for the artist’s model, who was also his lover and effectively his wife, it all adds up to a suffocating and closed system. Just as her beauty naturally makes us curious about her inner life, the artist insists that we erase that curiosity. She’s there, making us wonder about everything, from the tone of her voice to the rhythm of her laughter. But he claims that the only legitimate wonder should be directed at him, at his talent and accomplishments, which were indeed formidable.

Conservatives and academics now disagree with this system. Exhibitions like this and the The groundbreaking 2018 exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” aims to recapture some sense of those who have been erased over the centuries by the inexorable commodification of people, usually women, in art.

This is an important and exciting new direction in scholarship, but often very frustrating because the erasure is sometimes complete. In the case of Joanna Hiffernan, the traces that remain only make this erasure bigger and more haunting. Look at another painter, Gustave Courbet, who also painted Hiffernan. Several versions of his portrait of her are in the National Gallery exhibition and, intentionally or accidentally, they give us a little clue completely missing from the images of Whistler.

How did she negotiate independence or power in what was a terribly unequal relationship? I’m only guessing, but based on Courbet’s psychologically more acute portrayal, she almost certainly knew how to cut Whistler down to size, trim his sails, and render him an image of himself, petty and crude, in all his splendor. ugliness.

The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler Until October 10 at the National Gallery of Art.

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