Whistler’s Irish muse framed as potent force at exhibition

Model Joanna Heffernan part of wider move to put women centre stage in art

Gustav Courbet called her Jo, la Belle Irlandaise. Except Joanna Heffernan wasn’t strictly beautiful so much as striking, with an abundance of the dark red hair that 19th-century artists prized as Titianesque. James McNeill Whistler, Joanna’s employer, painter and lover, was more direct. In a letter to Henri Fantin Latour, he enthused: “She has the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! A red not golden but copper – as Venetian as a dream! She looks supremely whorelike.”

And so, into our consciousness steps Joanna Heffernan, from Limerick, who came to London with her family in the Hungry Forties when she was a little girl, and met James McNeill Whistler, the idiosyncratic celebrated American painter when she was 21 and he five years older. She became his model, his mistress, his friend and the manager of his affairs. Their relationship lasted until the end of her short life – she died in her early 40s – but she is immortalised in his picture of her in 1862 as The White Girl in which she stands in a simple white dress against a white curtain, which set off her lovely, abundant hair, her full red lips and her blue-green eyes. The picture was rejected successively by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, but it had the distinction of being included in the Salon des Refuses of 1863 for works rejected by the Paris Salon and whose exhibitors read like a roll call of modernism.

Jo is now the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, called Whistler and the Woman in White: Jo Hiffernan. (The odd spelling of the surname is derived from an ambiguous reading of the 1851 census, but Heffernan would be more usual.) It is an attempt to take one woman from the margins of the story of art and put her centre stage.

Male gaze

This is something of a fashion just now in the art world. There has been a vigorous effort to focus attention on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – the womenfolk of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; they were the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2019. The catalogue of this exhibition declares that it “foregrounds Hiffernan in relation to the making, reception and cultural context of the many images of her and in this way hopes to contribute to ongoing discussions concerning gender and identity in the history of art.”

Models now are credited with agency in the works they featured in and as collaborators in making modern art

So, instead of being passive objects of the much-discussed male gaze, models now are credited with a good deal of agency in the works they featured in, and therefore as collaborators in the making of modern art.

This approach doesn’t quite work with Jo. There’s nothing to say that she steered Whistler in the way she was depicted in his numerous pictures of her. She did however suffer for his art: she had a persistent cough after the completion of The White Girl, perhaps attributable to the lead in the white paint they both inhaled during her lengthy sittings.

But if this exhibition doesn’t leave us with Jo Heffernan as artistic collaborator, we are left with the impression of a vivid human being. Like the other famous, if fictional (half) Irish model, Trilby O’Ferrall, of George du Maurier’s novel, she had an impact on the circles in which she and Whistler moved. There were 107,000 Irish in London at the same time as the Heffernans and for the same economic reasons; she is one of the few to emerge triumphantly from obscurity. The picture of The White Girl (later, Symphony in White) had a wilfully anonymous title; Jo, however, came out of the shadows.

‘Attractive personality’

We learn from Lucas Ionides, Whistler’s friend, that Jo “under the refining influence of Whistler . . . became an attractive personality”. Whistler’s biographers described her as “a woman of next to no education but of keen intelligence . . . and great charm of manner”. Certainly she created a stir; George du Maurier, author of Trilby – which featured Whistler unflatteringly – wrote that “Jimmy describes all the Parisians on the boulevard as aghast at ‘la belle Anglaise!” Gustav Courbet painted her as Jo, la belle Irlandaise, during a holiday he spent with the couple in Trouville. He wrote later, nostalgically: “Do you remember Trouville, and Jo who played the clown to amuse us. In the evening she sang Irish songs so well because she had the spirit and distinction of art.”

She helped raise his son, Charlie, by another woman, which shows considerable magnanimity

She was indeed more to Whistler than a model and mistress. She helped raise his son, Charlie, by another woman, which shows considerable magnanimity. She fended off his creditors, borrowed money on his behalf and sold his etchings. Her situation was, of course, unrecognised. When Whistler’s redoubtable mother arrived in England, Jo was bundled off. Later Mrs Whistler was to suggest that Jo might have a grant of £100 “to promote a return to virtue”, a suggestion Whistler repudiated. Jo was the beneficiary of his will.

She died aged 44. But she lives on as a vivid character in the bohemian world of mid-19th century artists: an Irishwoman who is, as The Girl in White, one of the immortals.

Melanie McDonagh is writer at large for the Evening Standard