Some time ago I checked a book out of our public library about the life and work of the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler. Most famous for the 1871 piece Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist’s Mother, Whistler also painted a number of pictures of his beautiful Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, which are more attractive than his austere mother.
Jo Hiffernan, born in Ireland around 1843, became Whistler’s model at the age of seventeen, and his mistress not long thereafter. She was the subject of the 1862 work Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, in which Whistler used a series of white on white tones, kept from outright dullness by the rich red of Jo’s hair and the patterned carpet and bearskin under her feet. This painting has been used as cover art for many editions of the Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel The Woman in White.
From the time she became his mistress up until this point, Jo had been a steadying influence on the irascible Whistler; she served not only as model and mistress for him, but housekeeper and agent. But the relationship began to fall apart when Whistler’s widowed mother, who had heretofore lived in the United States, moved to London and into his home in 1864. Whistler was forced to find other lodgings for Jo, as his mother regarded her, beautiful and good for her son or not, as no better than a prostitute. He was also forced to sneak around in order to spend time with Jo. For this purpose, he took Jo to the French resorts of Trouville and Deauville, in Normandy, in the summer of 1865. There they met the contemporary French painter Gustave Courbet. A leading exponent of the French Realist art movement, Courbet was impressed by Whistler’s art, but he was even more impressed with Jo’s red hair and porcelain skin. While the three were in France, Jo posed for Courbet, which sent the possessive Whistler into a fury. Their relationship ended not long thereafter.
There is reason to believe that Jo became Courbet’s model and mistress, as she had been previously to Whistler. The best known of Courbet’s paintings of her is the 1866 work La Belle Irlandaise (The Beautiful Irish Girl), also known as Portrait of Jo, in which her red hair falls around her like a curtain of flame.
Courbet had, by the late 1860s, begun painting increasingly more erotic works, some of which were commissioned by a Turkish diplomat named Khalil Bey, and it is believed that Jo modelled for at least two of them: L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1866), which resembles nothing so much as a gynecological shot from Penthouse in oils, and Le Sommeil (Sleep) (1866), which depicts two naked women asleep on a bed.
Despite the end of their relationship, Whistler gave Jo power of attorney to act as his agent, and for some years she sold his artwork on a commission basis. She also helped raise Whistler’s illegitimate son, born to a housemaid in 1870. Her liaison with Courbet did not last.
Little is known of Jo after 1880. It is thought that, at about the age of thirty-eight, she married an Englishman named Abbott, and they lived on the continent. The last time she is mentioned in historical records is in 1903, when art collector Charles Lang Freer met her at Whistler’s funeral. Freer described the encounter to fellow art collector Louisine Havemeyer:
As she raised her veil and I saw. . .the thick wavy hair, although it was streaked with gray, I knew at once it was Johanna. . .She stood a long time beside the coffin—nearly an hour I should think. . .I could not help but be touched by the feeling she showed toward her old friend.
Nothing more is known of Jo—how long she survived Whistler, or how old she was at her death, where she died, or where she is buried.
Call me a softie, but Jo Hiffernan’s story seems to me to have much in common with Patty Boyd’s—the beautiful young woman who inspired George Harrison and Eric Clapton to write two of the most brilliant love songs in the popular canon: “Something” and “Layla.”
Something in the way she moved inspired Whistler and Courbet, for certain.