The remarkable beauty of a muse. Clearly the young artists’ model, Joanna Hiffernan, provided a remarkable inspiration for James Whistler – and his contemporaries, such as Courbet and her astonishing looks and glorious copper red hair has been immortalised in one of his most famous paintings, The White Girl. The Royal Academy has created a wonderful celebration of this exceptional model and the men who loved her.

It’s so good to see a model celebrated in an exhibition. Yes, it was the artist who created the work but without the generosity and creative contribution of the model it would have been so much harder to complete the work and develop an idea. James Whistler was fortunate to have met the beautiful young Irish girl, Joanna Hiffernan. She met Whistler when he moved to London, having initially made the journey to Paris from his home in Massachusetts to become a painter. Clearly she was a glorious girl, good looking with tumbling locks of long auburn hair, bright eyed, intelligent and a very sympathetic model. They were lovers, friends and confederates. They never married but Whistler left everything to her in his will. It sounds as though she endured long hours in chilly studio rooms posing for Whistler and his contemporaries. I commend the Royal Academy for telling her story through the works she contributed to as well as the broader context of the painters’ experiences.

Here is Joanna in the painting which made Whistler’s name. She stands there dreamily clutching a white flower (it looks a bit like syringa) staring into the middle distance in her demure white frock. It’s a mesmerising image and enjoyable to stare at. In the same gallery we can see other paintings featuring white clothing and they have the same engaging atmosphere.

Then there are the wonderful portraits of Joanna made by Gustave Courbet. Apparently he adored her and kept the first portrait but made copies for sale.

I did love this sketchy painting of the artist at work while the girls in the studio rest and chat. It’s a surprisingly intimate scene.

And Joanna features in one of my absolute favourite paintings. We see her in Wapping, leaning back against a pub balustrade at a pub overlooking the murky water of the River Thames which is crowded with ships, boats and the stuff of commercial river life. She’s with two men, at ease, confident and holding forth in conversation in her dark dress.

Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan is on show at the Royal Academy until 22nd May. It’s glorious.

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