Artists’ model Joanna Hiffernan

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Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan, oil on canvas painting by James McNeill Whistler, 108 cm x 214.6 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Irish woman Joanna Hiffernan (1843-1903), known to friends as Jo, was an artists’ model and muse. She was intelligent, caring and sympathetic, stunningly beautiful and her personality was strikingly impressive.

Joanna, a Roman Catholic, was the daughter of Katherine and Patrick Hiffernan. Joanna had a sister named Bridget Agnes Hiffernan.

She used to model for the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), and was romantically linked to both the artists.

Walter Greaves who was Whistler’s student and an artist claimed in 1863 that Joanna had a son named Harry though no records exist to confirm his claim.

Whistler met Joanna at an artist’s studio in 1860 after which he started a relationship with her that lasted for six years. During this period she modeled for some of his best paintings such as Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), and Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1865).

Whistler’s family disapproved his relationship with Joanna because artists’ models were not considered good women during those times, though Joanna, herself an artist who drew and painted, only modeled for artists who were her friends.

Gustave Courbet: La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo)

La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo), 1866, portrait painting of Joanna Hiffernan by Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

She met Whistler’s friend Gustave Courbet while she was modeling for his Symphony in White, No. 2, painted during 1864-65. When Whistler went to Valparaiso, Joanna posed for Courbet’s 1866 works Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), and L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). She had also posed for Courbet’s La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo) painted in 1865-1866.

Art historians speculate that the friendship between Courbet and Whistler broke up after Joanna modeled for Courbet’s painting L’Origine du monde. It is also believed that she had an affair with Courbet too.

Whistler returned to the United States after ending his relationship with Joanna but he left a will in her favor. However, Joanna raised Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870-1935) who was Whistler’s son with the parlor maid Louisa Fanny Hanson. Charles lived with Joanna until 1880 when Whistler was living in Venice with Maud Franklin, his new model and mistress.

Information about the biography of Joanna Hiffernan after 1880 is rather obscure. There are speculations that she married a man called Abbot sometime after 1881. There are also reports that a woman wrote to Gustave Courbet’s sister Juliette Courbet in December 1882 that Joanna was living in Nice, France, where she made a living by selling some works by Courbet and antiques.

The art collector Charles Lang Freer met Joanna at the funeral of James Whistler in 1903 when she came in mourning to pay her last respects to him.

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