Just Who Was Joanna Hiffernan?


National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.
Through October 10, 2022

Many of James McNeill Whistler’s works feature the red-haired figure of Joanna Hiffernan (1839–1886). Her close professional and personal relationship with the artist lasted for two decades, yet little about her has been explored until now.

Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl painting
JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER (1834–1903), “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” 1861–63 and then 1872, oil on canvas, 83 7/8 x 42 1/2 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Harris Whittemore Collection

After a triumphant showing at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, an exhibition devoted to Whistler’s visions of Hiffernan is set to grace Washington’s National Gallery of Art. It gathers, from collections around the world, more than 60 paintings, drawings, and prints that constitute nearly every known depiction of Hiffernan, as well as relevant documents and letters.

Baptized in Limerick, Ireland, Hiffernan immigrated with her parents and siblings to London — where, as Irish Catholics, they experienced poverty and social prejudice. When they met in 1860, Hiffernan not only became Whistler’s primary model but also helped manage his studio and financial affairs. In 1866, he gave her power of attorney and made her the sole heir in his will.

In 1870, after Whistler fathered a child with Louisa Fanny Hanson, Hiffernan and her sister raised the boy. He became the primary connection between Hiffernan and Whistler through the 1870s and into the 1880s. In 1886, Hiffernan died of bronchitis after lifelong respiratory problems that may have been exacerbated by her exposure to toxic art materials while working in the studio.

Alas, Hiffernan’s personal correspondence is rare, and no photographs of her or works of art made by her have been found. Presenting what is known, the exhibition invites visitors to participate in recovering Hiffernan’s humanity. It also features a substantial number of works by other artists — such as Rossetti, Sargent, Degas, and Klimt — who were inspired by Whistler’s influential depictions of Hiffernan wearing white. (A key example is illustrated here.)

The project has been guest-curated by Margaret F. MacDonald (University of Glasgow) in collaboration with Ann Dumas (Royal Academy) and Charles Brock (National Gallery of Art). The project is accompanied by a 232-page catalogue published by Yale University Press.

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