Hiffernan, Joanna (‘Jo’) (1839–86), artist’s model, was born in Limerick city, where she was baptised 8 July 1839 in the Roman catholic church of St Michael, third child among six daughters and one son of John Christopher Hiffernan (1819–66?) and Catherine Hiffernan (née Hannan; c.1818–62); by her father’s second marriage she had three half-siblings, with whom it seems she had no contact. By 1843 the growing family had emigrated to London. Her father appears to have been a ‘lapsed gentleman’ (Daly, 17), with bohemian proclivities, hard-drinking and feckless, who sometimes worked as a teacher, while taking labouring work when necessary; the family suffered periods of extreme poverty. Though she received little formal education, Joanna was intelligent, capable and intellectually inquisitive. She was living and working in an artists’ studio, wherein she drew, painted and modelled, when in 1860 she met the expatriate American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). For several months they lived together in lodgings near the east London docks while Whistler worked on the first version of his painting ‘Wapping’, a seedy waterfront scene for which Hiffernan modelled the figure of a woman (probably a prostitute) aside two men at a terrace table in a Thameside tavern. For the completed version, Whistler muted the sexual innuendo of Hiffernan’s apparel, expression and pose (1863–4; National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, DC). Later in 1860 the couple set up house in the same building as Whistler’s London studio.
Thus began a seven-year personal and professional partnership, throughout which Hiffernan was Whistler’s lover, near constant companion, and muse, his primary artistic model, house- and bookkeeper, and occasional business agent. They lived together at several London addresses and for extended intervals in Paris, and travelled together elsewhere in France. Hiffernan posed for the most important paintings of this breakthrough phase of Whistler’s career, most notably the three paintings of his ‘symphony in white’ series. Delicately featured, with greyish-green eyes, she was petite in stature and frame. Her most striking physical attribute was her long, lush, brownish-red hair: ‘… the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! A red not golden but copper – like the Venetian of our dreams!’, Whistler exulted to an artist friend (original French text quoted in MacDonald (2020), 209). The hair tones combined with her facial features to convey an appearance that contemporaries regarded as distinctly ‘Celtic’. In a Paris studio in winter 1861–2, Whistler painted Hiffernan as ‘The white girl’ (NGA, Washington, DC; later retitled ‘Symphony in white, no. 1’), his first major work and one of the most revolutionary paintings of the nineteenth century, depicting her in a white cambric housedress standing before a white curtain, her fiery red hair worn loosely to her shoulders and contrasting vividly with the prevailing white tones of the seven-foot-high canvas. Rejected by the Royal Academy (‘the old duffers’, in the couple’s parlance (MacDonald (2020), 18)), the painting was exhibited in June 1862 in a private London gallery to considerable critical and public notoriety, baffling viewers by its technical and narrative ‘incompleteness’. As an uncommissioned picture of an anonymous subject, informally groomed and attired, the painting defied prevailing conventions of full-length, grand manner portraiture, while Whistler’s teasing at narrative context – Hiffernan’s expressionless, trancelike gaze; the broken flower in her hand; the white, animal-skin rug under her feet – was too enigmatic, and too suggestive of scandalous interpretation, for a Victorian public accustomed to easily readable, and often moralising, narrative painting. Rejected also by the 1863 Paris salon, ‘The white girl’ was exhibited that year at the landmark first ‘salon des refusés’, where it created a sensation equalled only by Édouard Manet’s ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’. Both paintings were derided by the public and the art establishment, but praised by an avant-garde minority of artists and critics. The two works shared a rough, painterly brushwork and lack of technical finish that, combined with ambiguity of subject, implicitly asserted the primacy of technique over content, of aestheticism over narrative, as the true aims of painting, thereby sowing the seeds of impressionism and kindred movements.
Resident from June 1862 in Chelsea (from March 1863 at 7 Lindsey Row, overlooking the Thames beside Battersea Bridge), Whistler and Hiffernan moved in a circle that included Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a near neighbour) and other pre-Raphaelite painters, along with their models, wives and partners. They attended séances in Rossetti’s house; at these, and others in their own home, Hiffernan suggested capacities as a medium. Her position was complicated by Whistler’s navigation between artistic bohemia and respectable bourgeois society (to which his family background and contacts admitted him); Hiffernan did not accompany him in his movements within the latter. His family sternly disapproved of Hiffernan’s social inferiority, and of the social and moral impropriety of their living together openly in a non-marital relationship. When Whistler’s redoubtable mother arrived from America for a lengthy stay in January 1864, Hiffernan was dispatched to alternative lodgings. In contrast, Hiffernan’s family accepted the relationship; her father – described as teaching ‘polite chirography’ (penmanship) at the time – jocularly referred to Whistler as ‘me son-in-law’ (Pennell, 161).
Hiffernan continued with her own painting and drawing, and sold her work to dealers. Whistler depicted her in domestic settings in numerous drawings, etchings and drypoint prints. She also modelled for his woodblock engravings illustrating short stories and serialised novels in mass-market periodicals. With the better head for business, she kept his accounts, and when money was tight peddled both their work to Bond Street art dealers. She disconcerted conventionally minded friends and associates, as well as strangers, with her confident, assertive demeanour, taste for costly and extravagant clothing, and adventurous dress sense.
Conventional Victorian taste decreed red hair to be ugly and vulgar (the association with Irish ethnicity being evident); in the arts, red hair bore connotations of female deviancy, licentiousness and mental instability (literary and stage villainesses often being red-haired), while loose hair on women signified a relaxing of restraint. Whistler and his pre-Raphaelite contemporaries subverted these biases in their employment of lushly red-haired models (and thus inspired the rage for red hair, be it natural or hennaed, favoured by women of the bohemian aesthetic movement). Whistler’s imagery was the more subversive, in that he usually posed Hiffernan in contemporary, rather than historical or allegorical settings. In ‘Symphony in white, no. 2: the little white girl’ (1864; Tate Britain, London), Hiffernan stands wearing a white muslin morning dress in an aesthetically decorated, bourgeois domestic interior, her face reflected in a mirror above a mantelpiece on which she stretches an arm while gazing wistfully upon her wedding-ringed finger. In ‘Symphony in white, no. 3’ (1865–7; Barber Institute, University of Birmingham), the least narrative and most ‘symphonic’ of the series, and the last of Whistler’s completed pictures for which she modelled, she lounges frontally posed in a white dress on a sofa draped in white, a second, cream-clad young woman seated in profile on the floor by her feet. She appears with another female model and with Whistler himself in ‘The artist’s studio’ (1865; Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin), a rough preliminary study for an abandoned group painting depicting Whistler with other contemporary artists; a compositionally identical but more defined version (1865–6) is in the Art Institute of Chicago. Whistler posed Hiffernan in two of his earliest ventures into orientalism: in Chinese costume surrounded by porcelains in ‘Purple and rose: the lange leizen of the six marks’ (1864; Philadelphia Museum of Art), and in Japanese dress examining Hiroshige prints in ‘Caprice in purple and gold: the golden screen’ (1864; Smithsonian, Washington, DC).
‘LA BELLE IRLANDAISE’
Whistler and Hiffernan spent the summer and autumn of 1865 at Trouville on the Normandy coast with a friend, the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. Entranced by her beauty and charm (in later years he reminisced about her Irish songs and amusing tomfoolery), Courbet painted Hiffernan’s portrait as ‘La belle Irlandaise’, of which he made four slightly different versions; in each she regards herself in a hand mirror while running the free hand through her long, loose hair. (He also painted a small, brushy portrait sketch in oils, deftly capturing the alert vivacity of her character.)
Hiffernan’s further relations with Courbet are enigmatic. She almost certainly was the model for an earlier work, ‘Sleeping woman with red hair’ (1864; private collection), a preparatory study for a life-sized ‘Venus and Psyche’, depicting two female nudes (refused by the 1864 salon; present location unknown). In January 1866 Whistler departed abruptly on a nine-month journey to South America (possibly to evade anticipated police attention amid a roundup of suspected Fenian sympathisers, following the recent conviction for treason felony of his friend and correspondent John O’Leary (qv)). Prior to embarkation, he made a will bequeathing his entire estate to Hiffernan and granted her power of attorney with authority over his business affairs, including the right to sell his work at her discretion. Sales were poor, however, and she faced financial hardship. It has been speculated that during this period she went to Paris and modelled for Courbet, with whom she perhaps had a brief affair. It is possible that Courbet painted her in ‘Le sommeil’ (1866; Petit Palais, Paris), a work commissioned by Khalil Bey (1831–79), a Turkish diplomat, art collector and bon vivant, resident in Paris; the painting depicts two nude women with contrasting flesh and hair tones – one amber-skinned and copper-haired, the other fair and flaxen – lying entwined in an erotic embrace on a dishevelled bed. (Commentators have differed on which of the models would have been Hiffernan, the former for her hair colour, the latter for her features and complexion.)
This line of speculation has also associated Hiffernan with one of the most provocative artworks of the western tradition, Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’ (1866; Orsay, Paris). Also commissioned by Khalil Bey, the painting depicts the foreshortened torso and splayed upper legs of a supine nude woman, including explicit representation of the genitalia. The model’s face is not included, making identification nearly impossible. The painting has been variously interpreted: as a titillatory exercise, for the delectation of the voyeuristic masculine eye; as an uncompromising subversion of the hypocritical classical and academic tradition of the idealised female nude, epitomised by Ingres’s ‘La source’ (1856); and as a realist evocation of woman as Creatrix, the archetypal eternal mother, thematically aligned with the sexualised iconography of other works by Courbet.
Since its acquisition in 1995 by the French state from private ownership and placement in the Musée d’Orsay, ‘L’origine du monde’ has stimulated considerable interest and debate in academia, popular media, and the wider culture, especially in France. Some of that debate has addressed the identity of the model, including the possibility it was Hiffernan. A novel by French writer Christine Orban, J’étais l’origine du monde (2000), is written in the guise of Hiffernan’s memoir in old age. The sensationalistic claim by an amateur collector in 2013 that a painting recently purchased from a Paris antiques dealer, depicting the head of a reclining woman, was modelled by Hiffernan and had been cut out of a much larger canvas of which ‘L’origine du monde’ had also been a part, was vigorously contested by the museum and most art historians. More widely accepted (but not unproblematic) was the discovery in 2018 of circumstantial documentary evidence implying that the model for ‘L’origine’ was Khalil Bey’s mistress, a retired French ballet dancer. The curators of a Royal Academy exhibition on the Whistler–Hiffernan partnership (2022) reject that Hiffernan modelled for either ‘Le sommeil’ or ‘L’origine’, citing a lack of documentary evidence that Hiffernan was in Paris in 1866.
Though Hiffernan stopped modelling for Whistler after 1867, and they lived apart, their personal relationship persisted for some years before ceasing by the mid-1870s. Whistler described as ‘an infidelity to Jo’ his fleeting involvement with Louisa Hanson, a parlour maid, who bore a son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (b. 10 June 1870). Hiffernan was deeply involved in caring for the child (who addressed her as ‘Auntie Jo’), effectively assuming the role of foster mother. She lived with the boy at intervals at 2 Thistle Grove Lane, Kensington, in the household of Charles James Singleton (1841–1918), an accountant, close friend and financial advisor to Whistler, and long-time partner (from 1901, husband) of Hiffernan’s younger sister Bridget Agnes (c.1843–1921); the four individuals were recorded at the address in the 1881 England and Wales census.
Never robust in health and prone to respiratory ailments, Joanna Hiffernan fell seriously ill with chronic bronchitis during the persistently cold, foggy, wet and windy London winter and spring of 1885–6. She died on 3 July 1886 at 2 Millman Street, Holborn. Erroneous accounts that she called to Whistler’s house upon his death in 1903 and attended the funeral accompanied by Charles Hanson (who in adulthood served for a time as Whistler’s secretary) probably arose from her sister Bridget being mistaken for her by observers unaware of Joanna’s death. A major exhibition in 2022, ‘Whistler and the woman in white’, at the NGA, Washington, and the Royal Institute of Arts, London (160 years after the institution’s rejection of ‘The white girl’), explored the personal relationship and artistic collaboration between Whistler and Hiffernan, and united for the first time all three ‘Symphony in white’ paintings. Genealogical research commissioned by the curators ascertained the specifics of Hiffernan’s birth and death, and uncovered fresh material regarding her personal biography, and family background and history. The exhibition contributed significantly to the growing scholarly interest in the role of models (especially female) in the genesis of works of art, conceiving the professional model not as a passive subject but as an active co-creator, and the execution of posed figurative art as a collaboration between artist and model.