Whistler’s Women

James Abbot MacNeill Whistler left the United States in 1855 for Paris to study art. By the time he met Joanna Hiffernan, he had loved and left a woman or two.

Whistler in his studio, 1863

In 1860, artists’ models, especially nude models, were considered in the same class as women stage performers — that is, as semi-prostitutes. Successful models abandoned propriety and and embraced a Bohemian life style as well as their artist lovers. Joanna Hiffernan was a very successful model, appearing in paintings by the pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones as well as Whistler and Courbet.

Hiffernan had long thick auburn hair and a slender figure well-suited to langorous treatments by the pre-Raphaelites. After she took up living with Whistler, Hiffernan posed for a series of portraits wearing a white dress, simple by standards of the day, that reflected a similar aesthetic. Whistler also took to posing her with Chinese and Japanese props, since he had become much taken by Asian art, especially Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics.

In 1863, Whistler and Hiffernan moved to London. At the end of that year, Whistler’s mother came to join him. She was a strict, religious person and Whistler quickly moved Hiffernan to another house, tidying up the signs of his wicked lifestyle.

“Symphony in White”. Joanna Hiffernan, 1862

Whistler was constantly on the jump, looking for wealthy patrons and lucrative commissions, and he was anxious to be very visible. In 1864, word got around that a Greek shipping magnate had two beautiful, paintable daughters. Whistler, along with other publicity-chasing painters, went to see these girls.

Marie Spartali was very tall, severely beautiful, and very gifted as an artist in her own right. She was painted by many artists of the day. Her sister, Christina, was less gifted and had little of Marie’s sparkling personality. The only major painting of her is Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain.

Joanna Hiffernan had originally posed for the painting, but Whistler painted Christina Spartali instead, to curry father with her wealthy father and garner a fat commission. There was no question of impropriety. Not only did Marie chaperone her younger sister, but Whistler’s mother was on hand, constantly dashing in and out of the studio, offering the young women refreshments. Finished in 1865, the painting was a success and accepted into the Paris Salon, but to Whistler’s dismay, Spartali refused to buy it. Eventually, it was sold to an unknown patron by either Joanna Hiffernan or Gabriel Rossetti, who was trying to market Whistler’s work while the artist himself wandered abroad.

“The Princess from the Land of Porcelain”, 1865. Christina Spartali.

Hiffernan, meanwhile, had done quite a bit of posing for Courbet. Some think that she was the model for his scandalous L’Origine du Monde, though that is hard to determine at this distance, but she certainly posed for other erotic paintings that Courbet was producing at the time. And she had an affair with him. This led to the breakup of her relationship with Whistler in 1867. This did not keep her from looking after Whistler’s “accident” with a chamber maid, a baby boy she took into her care in 1870.

“The Origin of Sleep” by Courbet, 1866. Hiffernan is the model on the right.

Gabriel Rossetti introduced Whistler to his own patron, Frederick Leyland, who had made an enormous amount of money from shipping. Whistler ingratiated himself to the man, claiming that Leyland had introduced him to the concept of naming his paintings after musical compositions — Symphony in White or Nocturne in This or That — even though Whistler had toyed with the notion long before Leyland hove into view. Leyland pretty much supported Rossetti for years and when later voices rose that the man had been fleeced, Whistler replied that without Rossetti “this wealthy person would never have been urged from his busy obscurity.” And, truth be told, that is so: Leyland is remembered not as a shipping magnate, but as a patron of the arts. This memory has a sour edge, as we shall see.

Speke Hall today.

A social lummox, Leyland had married a beautiful, lively woman to handle his non-business life and leased a magnificent, but ridiculous, half-timbered 16th Century house at Speke Hall where she could entertain. Immediately after leasing the place, Leyland began restoration, renovation, and recovery from disaster — three Rs known to anyone who has purchased a fixer-upper. This enterprise would require all the energy he could spare from the business that provided the funding for this folly.

“Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink”, 1874. Mrs. Frances Leyland.

Whistler soon landed a commission to paint Leyland’s portrait (to the chagrin of Rossetti who had been working toward that end) and then to paint one of Leyland’s wife, Frances.

It was during this period that Whistler found time to paint the portrait of his mother, Study in Grey and Black, that is his most easilly recognized work. Anna, who had tried to maintain a frugal household for her son and who wished she had more access to her illegitimate grandchildren, was made to pose when another model did not arrive. The result, which has declined or ascended, according to your point of view, into universal kitsch, was a very controversial picture in its day. The very formal composition and the limited colors made this a painting not easilly accepted by the Art Establishment. Whistler was dead before the painting achieved the iconic status it enjoys today.

“Study in Grey and Black”, 1871. Anna Whistler.

Whistler worked slowly and tended to rework and overpaint his original concepts. Frederick Leyland’s portrait was begun in 1870 but not finished until 1874. Frances Leyland began posing around 1871 but was not always available. Whistler then called on a young model, Maud Franklin, to wear the kimono that was to be featured in Frances Leyland’s portrait. Sometime in 1872, the fifteen-year-old Maud began a liason with Whistler. There were and are imputations against Frances Leyland, but she seems never to have slept with Whistler. On the other hand, he certainly flirted with her sister Elizabeth. He said, and this was probably true, that he proposed marraige to her. Elizabeth declined. Well, all these women, all this activity, Whistler was on fire.

“Arrangement in White and Black”, 1876. Maud Franklin.

Leyland had acquired Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain and meant to hang it in his London dining room where a grand collection of Asian pottery would also be displayed. The architect Thomas Jeckyll was employed to design a new interior. He erected a framework of gilded shelves for the ceramics and lined the walls with ancient — and very expensive — Spanish leather bindings meant for books. The room had large windows with folding shutters and Leyland asked Whistler to choose a proper color for them, one that would not clash with the Princess. Certainly, said Whistler, and moved in.

Peacock Room ceiling.

Over the next while, Whistler painted scenic peacocks on the shutters, peacock feathers on the ceiling, and covered the centuries-old leather walls with blue paint. He threw parties in the room while he was working and submitted all his bills — for gilt, paint, and parties — to Frederick Leyland. When Leyland saw what had been done to his dining room, he was aghast. He first refused to pay Whistler, then offered him a payment in pounds rather than guineas — a calculated insult. Jeckyll, meanwhile, went mad. Some say because of seeing his room destroyed, others that he was already unstable to begin with. (Panoramic view of the Peacock Room here).

The Peacock Room, 1892. The “Princess” at right.

Whistler managed to sneak into the dining room and paint two quarrelling peacocks on the wall, one with silver coins beneath its claws. There are those who claim that this peacock has a ruffled front, like Leyland’s shirts, and that the other bird has a raised feather on its head, reminiscent of the single white lock that Whistler brushed up from his own curly mop. Certainly Whistler promoted the exploited artist concept on his own behalf. Pretty soon though, he was embroiled with the lawsuit that he brought against Ruskin. Whistler won the suit but lost all his money in legal fees. Frederick Leyland presided over Whistler’s bankruptcy.

The Peacock Room with shutters open. The quarreling peacocks at center.

The shutters closed in the Peacock Room.

During the period that followed, Whistler made at least one attempt to lighten his load by jettisoning Maud Franklin. She persevered, however, and followed him onto the continent with their two children in 1879. They maintained a connection of sorts until 1888, when Whistler married Beatrix “Trixie” Godwin, widow of an architect, who had important connections to patrons Whistler might use. Trixie developed cancer and spent much of their married life bed-ridden until her death in 1896.

“Harmony in Red”, 1886. Beatrix Godwin.

Whistler’s mother died in 1881. Joanna Hiffernan and Maud Franklin both married several times, and seem to have escaped the fate of other models of the era: short, unhappy lives.

Whistler had been taken on by the American collector, Charles Freer, who purchased the Princess, and later the Peacock Room where she had been displayed. The room was transported to the United States where it may be viewed today in the Freer Gallery, part of that great complex of American museums in Washington, D.C. that includes the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. Freer handled Whistler’s funeral arrangements in 1903. He uncovered the artist’s face for Maud Franklin, and Joanna Hiffernan, her thick red hair now streaked with white, also came to grieve.

Notes: see especially The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography by Linda Merrill, if you can find it in a library.
Then the Freer Gallery’s sites, especially this one.
Otherwise, google away. There are many sites and a great deal of pretty pictures on line. There are many many shots of the Peacock Room, which is well worth a visit if you are ever in Washington, D.C.
Other paintings and drawings of these women by Whistler and other artists are not hard to find.