James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862.

Sensation painting

The many women in white at the Royal Academy are just one aspect of Whistler’s brilliance

Artillery Row On Art

“There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road — there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven — stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her”.

If Walter Hartright from Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White (1859) had been at The Royal Academy this week, he might have said the same about the middle of broad, bright Piccadilly. In the place of the poor, mad Anne Catherick is Joanna Hiffernan — the long-time muse, model, and mistress of James Whistler. She is, notionally, the joint focus of the exhibition: the woman in white Whistler painted three times in his famous “Symphony” paintings, and sketched and etched in many others.

Symphony, No. 1 or The White Girl (1861-2) is the exhibition’s deserved centre. The cover of innumerable editions of books — from Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove to Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White itself — it has become an archetypal image of airy, pure femininity.

Hiffernan’s auburn hair is one of the few moments of colour in the monochromatic scene, and the frothy floatyness of her dress and lace sleeves melt into the background of white jacquard curtains. She has more than a hint of late 1970s ethereal Kate Bush about her.

Whistler takes the historical symbols of the art world and renders them pure, pale, form

Her sickly paleness is offset by red cheeks, glowing eyes, and hair so bright it seems to give her a demonic halo. This is no portrait of the frail, feminine, late-Victorian consumptive heroine  — Henry James’s Milly Theale or Wilkie Collins’s Laura Fairlie. There is considerable darkness and power to the painting. She is standing on the splayed form of a wolf rug. The wolf’s face peers out from the bottom third of the painting, with the ruff of his neck just protruding from under the long, white folds of her skirts. Hiffernan does not make eye-contact with the viewer; she looks out of the canvas and somewhere over their left shoulder. But the wolf looks straight at his audience, his mouth open to a cruel approximation of a smile.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862.

Whistler famously subscribed to the “l’art pour l’art” school of thought that gained traction in nineteenth century France: true art has no moral or didactic purpose, but instead revels in light, colour, and pure aesthetics. Whilst his Symphony No. 1 may be a picture of extreme aesthetic brilliance, this is not just achieved through pure monochromatic harmony; the drama and tension of the discarded petals on the floor, the patterned carpet, and the splayed animal cannot be ignored. Whistler refutes a simple understanding of the work: the lily Hiffernan holds in her hand could as be read as a symbol of feminine virginity, just as the wolf’s head could be read as a symbol of power. In the place of straight-forward moralism, we are given drama.

And this is an undeniably dramatic exhibition. Whistler’s three Symphonies are exhibited alongside paintings that are thought to have influenced him. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecca Ancilla Domini (1850) is a particular highlight — the lilies in his painting are nothing if not symbolic: of Mary; of Christ’s impending death. Whistler has taken the historical symbols and tropes of the art world and rendered them pure, pale, form.

The exhibition’s curator — Margaret F. MacDonald — also includes a wide range of pictures in which Whistler’s influence is evident. From Gustav Klimt to Albert Herter, no woman in white is spared her moment in the spotlight. The best of these later works is undoubtedly John Everett Millais’s The Somnambulist (1871). A barefoot, similarly red-haired woman walks along a rocky, costal path in her white night-dress. She is holding a lamp, but the candle has fallen out. There is a speck of disconcertingly bright orange light in the far-right background, but there is no other clue as to why her face is illuminated so with such a glow from one side. She seems to emit light, rather than reflect it. There is more than a touch of the ghostly gothic about the whole painting. If Whistler strove for pure art of shades of colour and light, Millais goes in for the painting of sensation-fiction — and his work is no worse for it.

For a moment we are with him as the dampened paper is lifted off the plate for the first time

But it cannot all be delight, even in an exhibition as good as this. Frederick Sandy’s Gentle Spring (1865) makes an unhappy appearance. I refuse to believe that a painting which is simultaneously so unremittingly sentimental and unrelentingly lustful could be influenced by Whistler. It is on loan from the Ashmolean, but if I had my way it would have been burnt a long time ago.

But, away from my incendiary urges, the exhibition is filled with reams of Whistler’s other works. Whistler was a master printmaker: his etchings of scenes at Wapping have a vitality and life that is rare in the monochromatic, dark, closely-worked scenes that dry-point produces.

His prints of Hiffernan are similarly brilliant: his 1861 dry-point “Jo” is a masterful rendering of her face. Her hair is so vivid and tangible that it is possible to imagine how confidently he must have scratched the lines into the copper plate — each scratch an individual strand — and the texture of her forehead, nose, lips and deep-set eyes lose nothing in their black-and-white rendering.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Jo’s Bent Head, 1861.

In Jo’s Bent Head (1861), the artistic possibilities of dry-point in Whistler’s hands become clear. Three versions of the print are set next to each other, each with less dark ink outside the etched lines than the other. The series moves from smoky tension (where the ink has been rubbed in circular motions and then printed for the first time) to greater clarity. Seeing the different states side-by-side allows the viewer an insight into Whistler’s process — for a moment we are with him at the press as the dampened paper is lifted off the plate for the first time.

The exhibition is not perfect. Despite proclaiming to take Hiffernan as its joint subject, there is far less expositional biographical material about her, and no mention of the potentially more scandalous aspects of her life as a muse (there is a long-standing rumour that she is the subject of Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde). But, nevertheless, the combination of muse and painter is a convincing one, and the paintings are so brilliant they could dazzle in any exhibition.

Swinburne famously wrote a poem — “Before the Mirror” — in response to Whistler’s Symphony No.2. I feel I should stop this review before I start to attempt the same.

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is at the Royal Academy until 22 May 2022

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