DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
As you may have heard by now, an upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts will feature Joanna Hiffernan. Curated by Margaret F. MacDonald and others, Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan opens to the public on February 26 and runs until May 22 before moving on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., July 3 through October 10. Admission at the RA will be £17.
Interestingly, the RA and NGA have legitimate but very different claims on Jo’s legacy. The latter institution has been the home of Whistler’s most famous portrait of her, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, since 1941. The RA rejected the same painting for its summer exhibition in 1863 but subsequently exhibited seven other paintings that included Jo, more than any other of Whistler’s models, although it is also true that Whistler stopped exhibiting paintings at the RA in 1871, when it nearly rejected the portrait of his mother. In any event, the new exhibition is one that no member of the Society will want to miss.
Whistler first met Jo in 1860, the year she started posing for Wapping. Artist and model were living together by 1862, when Whistler rented a house at 7A Queen’s Road (now Royal Hospital Road). In 1863, they moved to No. 7 Lindsey Row (now 101 Cheyne Walk), where Jo posed for several of Whistler’s most important early paintings, including my favourite, The Little White Girl. Their relationship began to fray soon after 1870, when Whistler became involved with several other women, most notably Maud Franklin, who ultimately replaced Jo as model and mistress. Still, it is impossible to overstate the impact, both directly and indirectly, Jo had on Whistler’s life during their decade together.
To begin with, there was that rejection of The White Girl by the RA in 1863. As a result, Whistler turned to the Paris Salon in that same year. They, too, rejected the painting, but allowed it to be exhibited as part of the first Salon des Refusés. Most critics ridiculed the picture, but it gained Whistler far more notoriety than had it been lost in the galleries of the official Salon. Also, earlier that year, when Whistler had first shown the painting at a small gallery in London, he responded for the first time in the press to a critic who had labeled the picture “bizarre” and “incomplete.”
Personally, artist and model seemed meant for each other, although that is not to say their life together did not have its ups and downs. Jo, who shared Whistler’s bohemian spirit, was devoted to him. When not posing for paintings and etchings, she helped with his correspondence and tried to manage his chaotic finances. Equally, Whistler appreciated her. They travelled everywhere together. When in Paris, he could deny her nothing in the way of clothes, dining, and entertainment. They attended seances at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s home in Cheyne Walk. Indeed, Whistler became convinced that Jo had mystical powers and was a “bit of a medium.” When his brother-in-law Seymour Haden snubbed Jo, Whistler returned the insult in a way that nearly divided the family.
However, the “fiery” Jo also had a temper, not to say a mind of her own. She nearly caused a split between Whistler and Alphonse Legros, whom she resented. She apparently pressured Whistler to legitimize their partnership by marrying her. When he became evasive, she nonetheless insisted on shopkeepers calling her “Mrs. Abbott.” Whistler tried to assure her of his affection by placing a wedding band on her finger in the Little White Girl. The gesture was perhaps also evidence of the general belief that he lived “in mortal fear of Jo.” Very likely, too, the arrival of Whistler’s mother to live with him in late 1863 strained their relationship. Yet, he signaled his continued devotion to her by making Jo the sole beneficiary of his will and assigning his power of attorney and control of his bank account to her before leaving for Chile in 1866.
Sadly, that is also when things started to go wrong. Finding it impossible to satisfy Whistler’s creditors while he was away, and doubtless feeling somehow abandoned, it has long been thought that Jo went to Paris and posed in the nude for Gustave Courbet, with whom she may also have enjoyed a sexual relationship. Margaret MacDonald challenges this scenario in the catalogue for the RA exhibition, but Jo became less of a presence in Whistler’s life after his return to London. Friends still regarded them as a couple, and Whistler would refer to the birth of his son Charlie by another woman in 1870 as his “infidelity to Jo,” but she never again posed for him after 1866. Something was clearly amiss.
Now here is the strange part. While Maud, as mentioned, began replacing her in the 1870s, Jo consented to raise Charlie, who grew up calling her “auntie.” She and Whistler clearly kept in touch during those years. He sometimes visited the boy and occasionally sent Jo money to help support him. She, in turn, took Charlie to admire his father’s work on the Peacock Room. Which raises the question of whether it was Whistler who discarded her, or she who, because of his “infidelity,” gave up on him as a reliable and faithful companion. I suppose some things are ultimately unknowable, especially as regards the relationship between a man and a woman.
Regardless, they remained fond of each other. In writing to young Charlie from Venice in May 1880, Whistler said of Auntie Jo, “Tell her with my love that she must expect a letter from me at once—as I shall write tomorrow.” No letters to Jo are known to have survived, and it is the last time Whistler mentioned her in his correspondence. They must have met from time to time when he returned to London, for Charlie’s sake if no other reason. Jo may also have spent time in Paris, but otherwise, she simply vanished. Only recently has it been discovered that she died of bronchitis in 1886, aged forty-four. Yet, thanks to Whistler, Jo has been immortalized. She will forever be known as “The White Girl,” and she lives again at the Royal Academy. Visit her and ponder the mysteries of her life with Whistler.
Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Tate
Wapping (1860–1864) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Le Sommeil (1866) by Gustave Courbet, Petit Palais, Paris
We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.