Hiffernan, Joanna ('Jo') (c.1843–p.1903?), artist's model, was born in Ireland, daughter of Patrick Hiffernan and his wife Katherine (d. 1862, aged 44); she had at least one sibling, a sister. By 1859 she had emigrated with her family (who were Roman catholic) to London, where they were living at 69 Newman Street, and her father – who seems to have been a 'lapsed gentleman' (Daly, 17) with bohemian proclivities – was working as a teacher of 'polite chirography' (penmanship) (Pennell, 161). Though receiving little formal education, she was described as intelligent, capable, and intellectually inquisitive. She was already modelling for artists when she met the expatriate American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) some time after he moved from Paris to London in 1859 and rented a studio on Newman Street close to her family's residence. For several months in 1860 they lived together in an East End docklands inn while Whistler worked on the first version of his painting 'Wapping' (completed 1864; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), a seedy waterfront scene for which Hiffernan modelled the figure of a woman (probably a prostitute) in deep décolletage seated with two men at a terrace table in a Thameside café. Later that year they set up house in the same building as Whistler's Newman Street studio.
Thus began a six-year liaison (1860–66), throughout which Hiffernan was Whistler's lover, companion, and artistic muse, his primary artistic model, house- and bookkeeper, and sometime business agent. They lived together in several London addresses and for extended intervals in Paris, and travelled together elsewhere in France. Hiffernan posed for the most important paintings of this early phase of Whistler's career, most notably the three paintings of his 'symphony in white' (or 'white girl') series. Her most striking physical feature was her lush, reddish-brown, copper-coloured hair: 'the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! A red not golden but copper – like the Venetian of a dream!', Whistler exulted (quoted in de Montfort, 83); along with the hair tones, her facial features gave her a physical appearance that contemporaries regarded as distinctly 'Celtic'.
Living in Paris in winter 1861–2, in a studio on the Boulevard des Batignolles Whistler painted Hiffernan as 'The white girl' (1862; NGA, Washington, DC; later retitled 'Symphony in white, no. 1'), his first major work and one of the most stylistically 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 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'. The domestic informality of Hiffernan's grooming and attire defied prevailing conventions of portraiture, while Whistler's teasing at interpretive context – Hiffernan's vacant, expressionless, trancelike gaze; the broken lily in her hand; the wolfskin rug on which she stands – was too enigmatic, and potentially too scandalous, for a Victorian public accustomed to easily readable, and often moralising, narrative painting, whether contemporary, historical or mythical. Rejected also by the 1863 Paris salon, 'The white girl' was exhibited that year at the first 'salon des refusés', where it created a sensation equalled only by Édouard Manet's 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe', both paintings being derided by the public and the art establishment, but admired by an avant-garde minority of artists and critics. The two kindred works, with their rough, painterly brushwork and lack of technical finish, combined with their ambiguity of subject, implicitly asserted the primacy of technique over content as the true subject of a painting, thereby sowing the seeds of the impressionist movement.
Resident from June 1862 in Chelsea (from March 1863 at 7 Lindsey Row (latterly, Cheyne Walk)), 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 revealed capacities as a medium. Hiffernan's 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 openly living together in a non-marital relationship. When Whistler's redoubtable mother arrived from America for a lengthy visit (January 1864), Hiffernan was dispatched to alternative accommodation in lodgings. (It is unclear whether Whistler and Hiffernan, while remaining lovers, ever again shared residence in London.) In contrast, Hiffernan's family accepted the relationship; her father jocularly referred to Whistler as 'me son-in-law', prompting some of Whistler's friends to describe him as 'a sort of Captain Costigan' (Pennell, 161), a reference to a character in Thackeray's Pendennis (1848): a roguish Irishman who encourages his actress daughter's marriage to the eponymous protagonist in the mistaken belief that because of his gentility he must be a wealthy man.
Hiffernan did some painting and drawing, and sold her work to dealers. Whistler executed numerous drawings and etchings of her in domestic settings. She also modelled for his illustrations of 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, presenting herself as 'Mrs Abbott' (an agnomen she employed socially and in business matters in later life). She disconcerted conventionally minded friends and associates, as well as strangers, with her confident, assertive demeanour and her adventurous, uncrinolined dress sense, her taste for costly and extravagant clothing.
Conventional Victorian taste decreed red hair to be ugly and vulgar (the association with Irish ethnicity being evident), and 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 associates 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 frequently posed Hiffernan in contemporary, rather than historic or allegorical settings. In 'Symphony in white, no. 2: the little white girl' (1864; Tate Britain, London), she stands wearing a white muslin morning dress in a domestic interior, her face reflected in a mirror above the mantelpiece on which she rests an arm. 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 pictures for which she modelled, she lounges in a white dress on a sofa draped in white, a second, cream-clad young woman seated on the floor by her feet. She appears with another female model and with Whistler himself in 'The artist's studio' (1865; Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane), a rough preliminary study for a projected but unrealised 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 used 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 prints in 'Caprice in purple and gold: the golden screen' (1864; Freer Gallery, Washington, DC).
Whistler and Hiffernan spent the summer and autumn of 1865 at Trouville on the Normandy coast with 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 other hand through her long, loose hair. In January 1866 Whistler departed abruptly for enigmatic reasons 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. In early autumn 1866 she went to Paris and modelled for Courbet; the two probably had a brief affair. 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 viveur, resident in Paris; the painting depicts two naked women with contrasting flesh and hair tones – one amber-skinned and copper-haired, the other fair and flaxen – lying entwined in a lovers embrace on a dishevelled bed.
It has been speculated, on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that Hiffernan was also the model for one of the most provocative artworks of the western tradition, Courbet's 'L'origine du monde' (1866; Orsay, Paris). Also commissioned by Khalil Bey, this painting is a close-up depiction of the foreshortened lower torso and splayed upper legs of a supine female nude, including explicit, portrait-like representation of the genitalia. (The model's head not being included, positive identification is impossible.) The painting has been variously interpreted as a titillatory exercise, bordering on the pornographic, for the delectation of the voyeuristic masculine eye; as an uncompromising deconstruction of the hypocrisy implicit in the entire academic tradition of the chaste, idealised female nude (with pubis cunningly concealed), epitomised by Ingres's 'La source' (1856); and as a demythologised evocation of Woman as Creatrix, the archetypal Eternal Mother, a kind of nineteenth-century, realist, Gallic sheela-na-gig. (These, and other interpretations, are not mutually exclusive.) Since its acquisition by the French state from private ownership and its placement in the Orsay museum in 1995, 'L'origine du monde' has stimulated considerable interest and debate in academia, popular media, and the wider culture, especially in France, some of it involving Hiffernan's presumed role in its gestation. The sale of postcard reproductions exceeds that of any other work in the Orsay collection, save Renoir's 'Bal du Moulin de la Galette'. A novel by French writer Christine Orban, J'étais l'origine du monde (I was the origin of the world) (2000), is written in the guise of Hiffernan's memoir in old age. In a sensational article in the magazine Paris Match (7 February 2013), an amateur collector claimed to have identified a painting purchased from a Paris antiques dealer, of the head of a reclining woman supposedly bearing a strong resemblance to Hiffernan, to be a portion of a much larger canvas of which 'L'origine du monde', depicting a lower section of the model's anatomy, had also been a part; though his claim was supported by one leading Courbet expert, it has been vigorously contested by the Orsay and many art historians, who argue that, in addition to stylistic and compositional discrepancies between the two paintings, there is no physical or documentary evidence that 'L'origine' had been cut out of a larger canvas. (The controversy prompted one French blogger to ask: 'Is Joanna Hiffernan our ancestor?')
During the winter following Whistler's return to London from South America in October 1866, he and Hiffernan separated, presumably on his learning of her affair with Courbet, but soon were back on amicable terms. Though she ceased to model for him, Hiffernan probably continued to represent him in business on occasion, and an intermittent sexual partnership was likely resumed; Whistler described as 'an infidelity to Jo' his fleeting relationship 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. In the 1881 England and Wales census (which documents her Irish birth), she is recorded at 2 Thistle Grove Lane, Kensington, with her younger sister Bridget and the eleven-year-old Hanson, all three of whom are described as 'visitors' in the household of an accountant, Charles James Singleton (1841–1918), a close friend and financial advisor to Whistler, who became a stockbroker and married Bridget Hiffernan in 1901.
Nothing definite is known of Joanna Hiffernan's life thereafter. It was said that she married, that she lived abroad. Orban fictionally imagines her as a respectable antiques dealer in Aix-en-Provence. There is an account (suspiciously sentimental) of her calling to Whistler's house and viewing the body after his death in 1903, and another (more credible) of her attending the funeral, accompanied by Hanson (who in adulthood served for a time as Whistler's secretary). The obscurity of Joanna Hiffernan's fate, even more than the scanty details of her origins, is a poignant reminder of how little is known of the lives and fortunes of many of the persons whose images inhabit familiar works of art by the world's great masters.