Over the winter of 1861-62, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) worked on a near-life-size full-length portrait of his mistress and manager Joanna Hiffernan, which was to become his most famous painting. It also has the distinction of being one of the few masterpieces to have been rejected both by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. This article wonders how two juries could make such an error.
Whistler had trained in Paris, where he became friends with Henri Fantin-Latour, Gustave Courbet, Carolus-Duran and Édouard Manet, as well as Charles Baudelaire. He moved to London in 1859, started exhibiting at the Royal Academy there the following year, and looked set to establish himself as a talented portraitist and landscape painter.
Originally titled The White Girl, this painting was quite different when he submitted it in 1862. Between 1867-72, he reworked it to make it more ‘spiritual’ and reduce its original realism. Taken at face value, though, it’s hard to see what any jury could find objectionable about it. It shows a beautiful woman standing in a fine white cambric dress against a window covered with a white muslin curtain. Under her unseen feet is a wolfskin, and the only flesh visible is that of her hands, face and neck.
One excuse made for the Royal Academy jury was an incident from the previous year. Edwin Landseer, one of Queen Victoria’s favourite artists, had submitted what was described as a portrait of a noted horsewoman, Ann Gilbert, resting her head against the flanks of a horse as she applied ‘horse whispering’ technique to train the animal.
Titled The Shrew Tamed (1861), it too appeared perfectly innocent until rumours spread that Landseer’s model hadn’t been Gilbert, but Catherine Walters, the most famous courtesan of the day. Walters too was an accomplished rider, and crowds used to form when she went out on her horse on London’s Rotten Row. She of course was very discreet, but is thought to have had affairs with the Duke of Devonshire, Napoleon III, and the Prince of Wales, who went on to become King Edward VII. In the circumstances, Landseer’s painting was a bit of an embarrassment to the Royal Acadeny.
Although Whistler’s model Joanna Hiffernan was living with him at the time, she had no such reputation, and their relationship wasn’t even adulterous. As paintings such as William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1851-53) not only showed a ‘kept woman’ but used one as its model, and many of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s works showed his lovers, it’s hard to follow that reasoning.
A little less unreasonable is an unfortunate confusion which became apparent when Whistler’s painting was shown in a small London gallery, and someone changed its title from The White Girl to The Woman in White, implying it depicted the character central to Wilkie Collins’s novel of that name, which had only been published in 1859-60. Indeed, even Whistler’s friend George du Maurier had been under that misapprehension.
In The Woman in White, Collins describes Anne Catherick, her proper name, as an eccentric young woman, and Whistler’s White Girl bears no resemblance. This also apparently confused some critics, who expected the painting to be more of an illustration to a book which had already proved to be a best-seller. As Whistler hadn’t read the novel, and was unaware of the confusion, it’s hard to see how a jury could be so confused, although someone in a small gallery might have later capitalised on the name in an effort to promote the painting.
Not only did the jury of the Royal Academy reject the painting, but the following year the Salon jury in Paris made the same mistake. In their case, there was no precedent involving famous courtesans, although the story of confusion with The Woman in White is perhaps just plausible.
Whistler’s painting was eventually one of the many which was hung in the Salon des Refusés on 15 May 1863, where it received far more positive critical reaction, and the artist was vindicated. However, the painting didn’t sell until 1896. Also shown in that celebration of the miscarriage of artistic justice was Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), so at least Whistler was in good company there.
Whistler went on to paint two more White Girls. The Little White Girl, which later became Symphony in White, Number 2 (above) also used Joanna Hiffernan as model, and was completed in 1864. He followed that with a double portrait of Hiffernan with Milly Jones, in Symphony in White, Number 3 in 1865-67 (below).
He later progressed to other colour themes, including pink and grey, in Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (1881-2) (below).
Another of my favourites, which is more contemporary with the original, is Whistler’s Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) (below).
Joanna Hiffernan famously went on to model for Gustave Courbet.
Courbet’s initial modest portrait of Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866) was a harbinger of more to come.
Next, she’s the erotically-charged nude in Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866), then in a lesbian embrace in The Sleepers (1866), and possibly even the explicit nude torso of The Origin of the World (1866).
After they had separated, Hiffernan raised Whistler’s illegitimate son by another lover, and re-appeared to pay her last respects at Whistler’s funeral in 1903.
What on earth were those two juries thinking about when they decided to reject this painting?