Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan ★★★★ Royal Academy of Arts | Feb 26 - May 22, 2022


After the iconic Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871) commonly known as Whistler's Mother, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) is probably James McNeill Whistler's most famous painting. It has been a source of ongoing public fascination and this exhibition focusses on Whistler's professional and personal relationship with the model and his muse, Joanna Hiffernan. However, we also see how Whistler was influenced by other artists such as Hiroshige and Courbet, and how in turn his chromatic studies inspired other painters such as Klimt and Millais. This compact, yet captivating, show touches on a number of subjects, but at the core are the three paintings of Hiffernan. The works, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) and Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865-67) are brought together with their predecessor to set up a complex conversation which we found totally absorbing. We were also struck by Courbet's three portraits of Hiffernan. In none of the six works does the model return the viewer's gaze, but for us, the wistful, almost ethereal atmosphere of Whistler's work provides an intriguing contrast to Courbet's more down-to-earth response to Hiffernan's allure. The exhibition also includes a sampling of Whistler's other paintings, prints and drawings, as well as interesting documents such as his will. But most importantly, it brings together nearly all of Whistler’s depictions of Hiffernan. For more than twenty years she was his source of inspiration, and the works that resulted from this collaboration not only invite the viewer into the world of their relationship, but also into a compelling artistic experimentation.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Wapping, 1860–64. Oil on canvas, 72 x 101.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, John Hay Whitney Collection

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