Joanna ‘Jo’ Hiffernan: Art and Beauty

26 February 2013

Of modest origins this “beautiful Irish woman” of good nature was born to a Catholic family in 1842/43. Her father was Patrick Hiffernan and her mother Katherine Hiffernan who died in 1862, aged 44. Joanna’s sister was Bridget Agnes who became Singleton. Little is known about the life of Joanna Hiffernan. The 1881 census of England lists her at an address in the parliamentary borough of Chelsea, age 38, with her sister Bridget and a Charles Hanson*, as visitors of a Charles Singleton whom Bridget would later marry.

She was romantically linked to the American painter and etcher James (Abbot) McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-77) for whom she modelled and became mistress and muse. She is described as a fiery redhead, physically striking with an even more impressive personality. Whistler biographers and friends, the Pennels, wrote that ‘She was not only beautiful, she was intelligent, she was sympathetic, she gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without’.

She had previously been a successful model and became the subject of famous oil on canvas paintings done by both artists that hang in different galleries and museums as part of private and public collections. She drew a little herself and also painted.

James (Abbot) McNeill Whistler

In 1855 he left America, age 21, to become an art student in Paris. He became a central figure in the development of European and American art in the nineteenth century principally working in England and France. He moved in the world of international art circles and exposed in many countries including the Paris and London Salons. He specialized in etchings, portraits and landscapes dominated by one or two colours. His best known works are Arrangement in grey and black, Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (Louvre) and Nocturne in Blue and Gold Valparaiso Bay (Tate Gallery). He was a controversial figure in the art world.

He and Joanna met at a studio in London in 1860 that started a six year affair referred to as “a marriage without benefit of clergy”. She attended séances with Whistler at the house in Chelsea of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (artist and poet) and modelled for his paintings in white depicting a sense of purity. She is the subject of his works The White Girl, No.l (1862), The Little White Girl No.2 (1864) and a portrait in white of her smiling and looking relaxed reclining on a sofa in the company of a woman sitting on the floor (1865-67), No.3. “Symphony” No. l, 2 and 3 were later added to the titles to give an abstract musical interpretation to the paintings.

During a long absence, in a letter dated 31 January 1866 the artist gave Joanna Hiffernan legal power of attorney to manage his affairs making provision for her household expenses and giving her authority to act as an agent in the sale of his works. She called herself Mrs. Abbot especially when selling Whistler’s works around dealers. It is when she went to Paris to visit Gustave Courbet that a friendship and affair began with the painter.

Johanna and Whistler’s relationship ended when he learned about her adventure with the French painter. There are some colourful anecdotes told about Joanna’s father who, in his Irish way, referred to Whistler as … “me son in law”.

She maintained a friendship with Whistler, taking care of his illegitimate son James Whistler Hanson* by a young parlour maid, Louisa Fanny Hanson. He was born in 1870 and lived until 1935. He lived for at least ten years with Jo Hiffernan at her house in London, 5 Thistle Grove. She ended up as a ‘respectable antique dealer’ in Aix-en-Provence and is known to have attended the funeral of James Whistler in London in 1903 as recorded by the most famous art collector and patron Miss Louisine Havemayer.

Gustave Courbet

Self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France”, his career was punctuated by scandal often deliberately courted by the artist himself. His works challenged convention by rendering scenes from daily life on the large scale previously reserved for history painting and in emphatically realistic style.

He created a sensation at the Paris Salon of 1850-51 when he exhibited a group of paintings in his native Ornans, a village in the Franche-Comté in Eastern France. Confronted with the unvarnished realism of Courbet’s imagery, critics derided the ugliness of his figures and dismissed them as “peasants in their Sunday best”. His depictions of a rural middle class in his Ornans subjects unsettled his Parisian audience at the Salons.

Through his powerful realism, he became a pioneering figure in the history of modernism. Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein three of which (1866) are titled The Source, Woman with a Parrot and Woman in the Waves.

During his three month stay in Trouville in 1865, Courbet attracted a following as portraitist among the society women at the fashionable resort on the Normandy coast. It is possibly where he met the “beautiful Irish woman” through his acquaintance with his friend and fellow artist James McNeill Whistler who was working in Trouville in 1865.

Although dated 1866, his painting of La Belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo) was probably started in 1865 when Courbet wrote of “the beauty of a superb redhead whose portrait I have begun”. He painted three repetitions with minor variations. The model for his nude painting Woman with a Parrot, symbol of eroticism, is Joanna Hiffernan. She also modelled for Courbet’s painting Le Sommeil on a lesbian theme showing two nude women as in passionate love, eyes closed as if asleep.

Most recently the names of Gustave Courbet and Joanna Hiffernan are again to the fore with controversy in the art world surrounding an erotic painting ‘The Origin of the World’ (1866) that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay since 1995. Described as the most audacious painting in the history of art, and a truthful view of the origin of mankind, it shows a close up view of genitals and abdomen of a naked woman lying on a bed with legs spread.

In February 2013 the French journal Paris Match reported a ‘world exclusive’ that Courbet expert, Jean-Jacques Fernier, had authenticated a supposedly long lost painting of a young woman to be the head and shoulders of Joanna Hiffernan, the upper section of ‘L’origine du monde’ which, according to some, was severed from the original work. The British Daily Telegraph reported that “experts at the French Art Centre (CARAA)” were able to align the two paintings via grooves made by the original wooden frame and lines on the canvas itself, whose grain matched. It has been given official recognition as Courbet’s work.

Controversy continues about technical and scientific analysis to solve the enigma of the ‘anonymous’ painting but art historians are enthusiastic about what Paris Match calls the miraculous revelation of the secret woman. Courbet’s admiration for Joanna Hiffernan showed no boundaries. He saw her as a goddess of love of all kinds. He saw womanhood in a very special and fascinating way which today astonishes almost everybody.

Ita Marguet, March 2013

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this article. The Irish name Hiffernan or Heffernan was originally from Clare. The sept became established on the Limerick-Tipperary border. (MacLysaght, The Surnames of Ireland, Sixth edition).