Tag Archives: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Grey and Green

6 Feb

“A fallen blossom
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.”


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-1874

Whistler painted quite a few ladies in white gowns, but those ladies usually have a look of melancholy or wistfulness on their gentle faces. The little girl appears to be showing off her clothes, her white stockings, her black satin slippers, her hat with a large feather, all the way to her dazzlingly white muslin gown, but as our gaze slowly moves up, we see a pale face with pouting lips and a distant gaze that doesn’t speak of joy or rapture. This little girl however looks rather moody, hiding her anger because she isn’t allowed to express it. But how can someone dressed in such a pretty gown be so moody? How can someone posing for an artist not have cheeks blushing from thrill and rapture? This dolly isn’t a typical melancholy muse as Joanna Hiffernan was; Whistler’s lover and companion who posed for his Symphony in White no 2 and some other paintings. This little girl is Miss Cicely Alexander, a daughter of a banker that Whistler met because of their mutual interest in Oriental art, and she was eight years old when this unfortunate sitting took place. More than one sitting naturally. It took the pedantic Whistler more than seventy sittings to paint everything just as he had envisioned it. He didn’t seem to take Miss Cicely’s feelings into consideration and despite the lyrical beauty of the portrait, it didn’t remain in good memory for the little girl. This is what she had to say about the sittings: “I’m afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I sometimes used to stand for hours at a time. I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.

That’s why she looks moody! Why, wouldn’t you be moody and angry yourself, if you had to stand still for a long time and not be able to play with dolls or joke around with your friends or siblings. Sitting for Whistler surely made her feel like Sisyphus carrying that huge stone to the top of the hill over and over again; a never ending pursuit…  which did have its ending after all. And the result is a very dreamy painting that continues Whistler’s tradition of portraits of wistful ladies inspired by Japonism. In this portrait, hints of Japan come in form of bright curious daisies on the right and a few butterflies that desperately want to escape the canvas. I really love how the tall daisies seem to be leaning towards the girl, as if they are trying to comfort her; “shhh little girl, don’t cry, that Mr Whistler may be awfully demanding but the painting will be a dream once finished”. The daisies are such prophets and they were right. Whistler’s eccentricity, love for l’art pour l’art philosophy and his pedantic approach to his art truly shine through in this portrait. He paid meticulous attention to all the aspects of the setting, especially the colours because he wanted to achieve a palette of muted shades, white and greys. The carpet and the walls are in many shades of grey while Miss Cicely shines in white like a resplendent white flower. The carpet was order made and that gorgeous muslin dress was designed by Whistler and made especially for Miss Cicely to wear in this portrait. He even made sure the family find the right muslin, as a dandy he would know the fabrics!

I really love all of Whistler’s harmonies and symphonies and their balanced colour palettes, dreamy ambients and pretty wistful sitters. For a long time my favourite was The Little White Girl, and perhaps it still is, but I feel that in this portrait Whistler achieved the minimalism of colours and space that he so loved in Japanese art; the background isn’t cluttered with fur carpets or fireplaces, it is just that meditative grey that stretches on and on, the mood of infinity broken only by that black line which somewhat reminds me of a canvas by Rothko, and the canvas is a little bit elongated which brings to mind the ukiyo-e prints and the formats they used. When I look at this portrait for a long time, at first I hear silence but then I hear quiet music emerging, an echo of the daisies’ laughter, and a sound of flute carried on by the butterflies chasing each other around the moody girl in white… Oh, how she wishes she could join them!

Gustave Courbet’s Muse

14 Jun

Joanna Hiffernan was an Irish artist’s model and a muse to a French painter Gustave Courbet.

1862. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1-The White Girl (girl is Joanne Hiffernan)

Joanna Hiffernan met Gustave Courbet in 1860. and went on to have a six-year relationship with him. During this period she often posed as a model for him. Though she was physically striking; tall and red haired Irish beauty, her personality was even more impressive. She was first a muse to an American-born, British-based painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler whose friends said of Joanna:  ‘She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.’ The painting above is a portrait of Joanna painted by Whistler.

However, Joanna is better known as a muse to Gustave Courbet, a French painter who led the Realist movement in 19th century French painting. During the 1860s, Courbet painted a series of erotic paintings and Joanna modeled for many of them. During his three-month stay in Trouville in 1865, he attracted a following as a portraitist among the society women in this fashionable resort on the Normandy coast. There he met Joanna through acquaintance with fellow artist James Whistler who was also working in Trouville. In 1865. Courbet wrote about ‘the beauty of a superb redhead whose portrait I have begun’ and he was talking about his portrait  Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise).

The portrait shows beautiful Irish red-haired women; Joanna, gazing longingly at the mirror which she’s holding in her left hand while she’s touching her long, curly red hair with her other hand. Melancholy and disappointment protrudes from her eyes as if she, although young, had not achieved what she was hoping for. She’s looking at her face; waning beauty slowly disappearing, and asking herself ‘where have the days gone?’

1866. Gustave Courbet - Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl1865-66. Portrait of Jo (La belle Irlandaise)

Le Sommeil, translated as The Sleepers or Sleep is an erotic painting painted by Courbet in 1866. Because it depicts lesbianism, the painting is also known as Two Friends (Les Deux Amies) and Indolence and Lust (Paresse et Luxure). Though originally commissioned by the Turkish diplomat and art collector Halil Serif Pasa, who was living in Paris at that time, it was not permitted to be shown publicly until 1988. as it was deemed provocative and improper. His other painting L’Origine du monde experienced the same destiny.

The painting shows two naked women lying on a bed in an erotic embrace. One of the women is brunette and the other is blonde but her hair has a reddish glow. No doubt that Joanna was the model for the blonde. Also, their skin tones are different and that just emphasizes the women’s curves and their overlapping bodies. This painting is interpreted as a realist painting for the bodies are detailed but the imperfections are not concealed.

Le Sommeil was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Delphine et Hippolyte’ from his collection Les Fleurs du mal.

1866. Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) by Gustave Courbet