Monday’s Muse: Whistler’s Woman


James Abbot McNeil Whistler was born on July 10th, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Whistler’s father, George, was a railroad engineer, and his work took the family all over New England, where he held posts at a variety of rail companies. In 1839, George was asked to be Chief Engineer of the Boston & Albany Railroad. The opportunity represented a significant step up from the previous regional positions George had held, and he moved with his family to Springfield, Massachusetts. The family settled in quickly, and George began work on a large mansion in a respectable neighbourhood. George’s work was of such note that it attracted the attention of Tsar Nicholas I. In 1842, George moved St. Petersburg and began work. Whistler and his mother followed soon after, and upon arrival, Whistler was enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy offered a classical education in both technique and draughtsmanship, and Whistler showed talent early on. His passion for art only grew larger after a visit with his mother to his relatives in London. There, Whistler’s uncle, William Haden, gave him supplies and books, and took him to see collections and exhibitions. The young Whistler was captivated, and even had his portrait painted by Sir William Boxall. But just as he became confident that he had found his calling, Whistler’s father died of cholera. The family had no choice but to move back to the United States where they resettled in Connecticut.

The death of Whistler’s father had a severe impact on the family’s financial standings, and Whistler’s aspirations of becoming an artist were cast into doubt. His mother pushed him to become a minister and enrolled him at Christ Church Hall School, though it became almost immediately clear that he was not suited for a spiritual calling. After he left Christ Church, Whistler chose to enroll (with the help of family friends) at the United States Military Academy at West Point. For Whistler, West Point proved to be no better than Christ Church: he was insubordinate; perennially dishevelled; and a poor student. The final straw came when he failed a Chemistry exam. In an act of either complete ignorance or bizarre humour, Whistler wrote in answer to one of the questions: “Silicon is a gas.” He was dismissed soon after.

Self Portrait, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858
Self Portrait, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858. Image Credit: Wikipedia


The next few years of his life find Whistler first working as a draftsman mapping coastlines, and later as an etcher for the US Coast Survey. He was fired from his first job and transferred to the second after he was discovered embellishing his maps with drawings of sea monsters; and he was summarily fired from the second after he failed to turn up on time, and played billiards instead of working.

In 1855, Whistler moved to Paris, and this would later prove to be a turning point in his career. In Paris, he was exposed to the bohemian lifestyle, and wasted no time in joining it. He resumed his studies, and enrolled at the Ecole Imperiale and began working at the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. Whistler began studying by himself at the Louvre by copying and sketching whatever works caught his eye. It was during one of these visits that he met Henri Fantin-Latour who would go on to introduce him to the likes of Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet (the latter of whom he would remain close friends with for the rest of his life).

Joanna Hiffernan and Whistler met in 1860 in London, and she returned to Paris with him in 1861. Hiffernan was to Whistler as Meurent was to Manet, although the former was undoubtedly both a romantic and an artistic relationship, whilst the latter was (supposedly) chaste. At the time, nude models were seen as comparable to prostitutes, and Whistler had to be careful to conceal Hiffernan from his mother. But in the words of Whistler’s biographers, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph Pennell, Hiffernan:

“was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.”

The quotation offers a view of Hiffernan, which is more in keeping with modern conceptions of Muses in that they are part of the dialogue and not merely its subject. Hiffernan, like Meurent to Manet, offered Whistler a way to access a new style and visual vocabulary. Whistler’s first work of Hiffernan Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) was actually first shown in a private gallery, before it was included in the Salon des Refuses. Whistler’s work was actually not far from Manet’s infamous Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Manet’s work did cause such a scandal that it upstaged most of the work in Salon, but Whistler’s work did not go unnoticed.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862. Image Credit: Wikipedia


The work is an expression of Whistler’s concern with communicating a sense of color and harmony in place of a more literal imitation of reality. Whistler’s line is loose and expressive without being uncontrolled, and the riotous patterns of the carpet and bearskin are almost prescient of the later experiments of artist like Vuillard. Whistler was always a proponent of “art for art’s sake”, and was annoyed by attempts of his critics to analyse the painting. When the work was first shown in London and the Athanaeum published a review linking it to Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman In White, Whistler was so annoyed he wrote the journal a letter clearly stating that the two were not in the least related. In Whistler’s rejection of the narrative or allegorical power of art, he has, it can be argued, unwittingly woven something of both into his work. He reworked parts of the painting from 1867-72, complaining that it was tainted by the early realist influences of his friend Courbet, and it is in that, which one can see a trace of Whistler’s personal investment in the piece. Realism is an attempt to imitate but it offers no space for emotion. If Whistler were concerned only with “art for art’s sake” and he had little care for emotional, allegorical or spiritual dimensions then he would have left the realist influence in, and not attempted to rework it into something more representative of the aforementioned trio. The roots of the work can be traced back to Whistler’s studies at the Louvre: there he copied works to better understand them, to learn their forms, and unlock their secrets; here with Hiffernan he is copying reality, living and breathing, in a bid to do the same.

In conclusion, whilst the work and indeed his brief affair with Hiffernan is often overshadowed by Whistler’s rather famous mother, it offers an important look into the mind and aspirations of a young artist as he began upon the path of what would become a monumental career. There is a timidity to this early work, which by the time he created Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871) is gone. Hiffernan gave Whistler a foundation, she was his muse, his lover, and even later cared for his illegitimate child (from another affair). Around the 1880s she disappears entirely, and is seen only at Whistler’s funeral before fading away again. But the mark that she left on Whistler’s work is indelible, for she was for Whistler, just as she would later be for Courbet: l’origine du monde.

Featured Image: Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter, c. 1872. Image Credit: Wikipedia