Artist Stories

Joanna Hiffernan: Artist, Model and Whistler’s Muse

Louisa Mahoney 15 November 2021 min Read

Joanna Hiffernan and James Abbott McNeill Whistler met in London in 1861. He fell in love with her striking red hair and outspoken character and the couple soon moved to Paris where Hiffernan became Whistler’s muse, partner, and modèle privilégié. For six years, Whistler couldn’t stop painting Hiffernan. Her image became his obsession. Hiffernan managed Whistler’s accounts, organized their domestic life, and acted as an endless source of inspiration, while also being an artist in her own right.

James McNeill Whistler, Wapping, 1860–1864, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA.

Hiffernan was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1843. Her family moved to London in the late 1840s, driven by the Great Famine. She grew up poor and likely did not receive an extensive education. Hiffernan quickly adjusted to her new milieu when she and Whistler began their relationship, although the differences in their backgrounds were not without their difficulties. Hiffernan was rejected by Whistler’s conservative New England family (when visiting her son, Whistler’s mother allegedly requested that Hiffernan be moved out of the house). Whistler’s friends were also critical, characterizing Hiffernan’s background and family in near Dickensian terms.

James McNeill Whistler, The Artist in His Studio (Whistler in His Studio), 1865/1872, 1895, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA.

Despite her struggles to be fully accepted, Hiffernan quickly made a name for herself in Parisian artistic society. She was known for her wit and intelligence just as much as her beauty. Whistler raved about her appearance, especially her hair:

The most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! A red not golden but copper–as Venetian as a dream!–skin golden white or yellow if you will–and with the wonderful expression.

James McNeill Whistler, A White Note, The Lunder Collection, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, USA. Detail.

Hiffernan brought new energy to Whistler’s paintings such as in the celebrated Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl, which caused a sensation at the Salon des Refusées due to the painting’s frank sexuality (Hiffernan’s direct gaze was interpreted essentially as an erotic overture). From then on, Hiffernan became a constant in Whistler’s work. The two were deeply compatible. Whistler, a tireless painter, found his match in Hiffernan and her ability to hold a pose for an entire afternoon.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1861–1863, 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA.

In 1865, Hiffernan and Whistler spent the winter in Normandy with the realist painter, Gustave Courbet. Immediately taken by Hiffernan, Courbet painted her portrait. So enraptured by Hiffernan’s beauty and power as a subject, he produced at least four versions of the composition.

Gustave Courbet, Jo, la belle Irlandaise, 1865–1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

The artist remembered Hiffernan and the trip to Normandy fondly in a letter to Whistler written several years later:

Do you remember Trouville and Jo who clowned around to amuse us? In the evenings she used to sing Irish songs so beautifully, she had a feeling and talent for art…I still have the Portrait of Jo, which I will never sell…

A year later, when Whistler was working in Chile, Hiffernan stayed in Paris to oversee his affairs. During this period, she was painted for a second time by Courbet, in the sensual Le Sommeil. It has been widely hypothesized that the two also had a brief romance around this time.

Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil, 1866, Petit Palais, Paris, France.

Some even believe that Hiffernan is the model for the enigmatic L’Origine du Monde, Courbet’s infamous painting of a woman’s vulva, for which the model has never been identified. Concrete evidence has yet to be found to support this theory.

James McNeill Whistler, Jo, 1861 (state i/i), drypoint on ivory laid paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA.

At the same time that she acted as an inspiration for two of the 19th century’s greatest artists, Hiffernan also drew and painted herself. But unfortunately, little proof of her work remains, as it seems she never publicly exhibited her drawings or paintings.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865–1867, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, USA.

Hiffernan and Whistler’s relationship lasted until the 1870s, after which she reportedly moved to Nice and became an art dealer. The two remained close until the painter’s death in 1903. Hiffernan attended his funeral.

James McNeill Whistler, Weary, 1863 (state iv/vi), drypoint on ivory Japan paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864, Tate, London, UK.

Hiffernan and Whistler were kindred spirits, rigorously committed to art and its creation. Both known for being brash and loud, both immigrants who had chosen to leave their home countries and seek inspiration in France. In each other, they found camaraderie and collaboration. Together, they pushed the boundaries of what a portrait could be.

Learn more about Joanna Hiffernan, her art, and her influence at the upcoming exhibition Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The show will run from Feb 23 until May 22, 2022.



Courbet, Gustave, and Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu. Letters of Gustave Courbet. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.


MacDonald, Margaret F. The Woman in White Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler. National Gallery of Art, 2020.


Waller, Susan. “Realist Quandaries: Posing Professional and Proprietary Models in the 1860s.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 89, no. 2, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 2007, pp. 239–65.


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