In Review

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan – a ‘beautifully focused’ show

New exhibition explores the relationship between James McNeill Whistler and his muse

You might have never heard Joanna Hiffernan’s name, but you probably know her face, said Alastair Smart in The Daily Telegraph. Born in Ireland in the 1840s, Hiffernan was the lover of the American artist James McNeill Whistler, and the model for his 1862 painting Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl – one of the most controversial works of its era.

Depicting Hiffernan in “a white house dress standing before a white muslin curtain”, it broke all the rules of contemporary portraiture: its scale was “almost life-size”, a format generally reserved for pictures of “important men”; the use of white on white was “radical”. The appearance of its model, meanwhile – notably her “free-flowing” red hair – lent itself to accusations of lewdness. It was a “succès de scandale” that played no small part in establishing Whistler’s reputation.

This new exhibition explores the relationship between the artist and his muse, pairing the work (here labelled Woman in White) with a number of paintings and prints by Whistler and his contemporaries, including no less than 30 depictions of Hiffernan. It’s a gripping show that “tells a fascinating story with the aid of first-rate pictures”.

By all accounts, Hiffernan was “quite a woman”: five years Whistler’s junior, she was his “mistress, friend, companion and sometime business manager”, said Melanie McDonagh in the London Evening Standard. Gustave Courbet, for whom she also modelled, remembered her singing Irish songs “with the soul of an artist”. Courbet’s sensuous “head-portrait” of her is one of the highlights here; another is Whistler’s portrayal of “Wapping low life”, in which Hiffernan looks “very much at home”.

But a few striking portraits “do not make an exhibition”. The rest of the show mainly consists of paintings only tangentially related to the subject: Klimt’s portrait of Hermine Gallia makes the grade because it depicts a woman in white, while Whistler’s interest in Japan justifies the inclusion of a number of unrelated Hiroshige woodblock prints. “This show, frankly, is a mess. It doesn’t really do anybody justice.”

I disagree, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. The exhibition is packed with arresting images. There are three “magnificent” Courbet seascapes from a holiday he took with the couple; a series of “fascinating” Whistler prints that capture Hiffernan’s “amazing copper tresses”; and a “marvellously dynamic” poster for a play of Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White, with which Whistler’s portrait became associated. Nothing, however, rivals the painting itself. Seven foot tall, with “an astonishing range of colours in its palette of whites”, it is an unqualified masterpiece. Small as it is, this is a “beautifully focused” exhibition.

The Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (royalacademy.org.uk). Until 22 May

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