Whistler’s mother, meet Whistler’s very, very close friend at the National Gallery

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Updated July 18, 2022 1:31 PM ET

An early painting by 19th century American artist James McNeill Whistler is the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The big and fascinating show doesn’t feature his most famous work – a photo of Whistler’s closest relative: his formidable mother.

I’ve known Whistler’s mother for years. So can you, if you’ve ever taken an art class or seen a book of art classics. Old lady in profile, wearing a very black dress, white lace cuffs, white bonnet, seated near a gray wall. Average look. Judgement.

Click here to meet Anna McNeill Whistler.

This exhibition — “The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler” — focuses on the artist’s relationship with a much younger woman. He painted it 10 years before his mother.

Hiffernan was Whistler’s role model, muse and more.

Did Muse and Mom know each other? “Oh yes!” says curator Margaret MacDonald, who unearthed new information about the model. She says mom didn’t seem to think much about Joanna. “She was a little skeptical of models. The danger of a model eventually being seduced made her disrespectable.”

Victorian morality. Were they lovers? ” Oh yes ! Absolutely.

Joanna Hiffernan might not have been too crazy about Anna McNeill Whistler for good reason. Hiffernan lived with James Whistler “until mom came, and she had to move out,” MacDonald says. Still, the model and artist continued their relationship for decades. Hiffernan ran his studio, kept track of the books, and even raised a son Whistler had with another woman.

Letters and diaries show Joanna Hiffernan was great company, MacDonald says. “She was passionate, had a quick temper, was quite funny,” she says. “She was happy.”

Whistler painted, drew and engraved his muse again and again. The National Gallery exhibits three paintings by Hiffernan in white.

In Symphony No. 1; the white girl, she is larger than life, with long red hair. (X-rays show Whistler had fun with the length.) She’s wearing a long white dress. (Many laundresses in 1861). She is standing on a polar bear mat. (Elegance, therefore, in bourgeois houses). A distant look in his eyes, staring off into space.

In Symphony in white No. 2: the Little White Girl, she is always dreamy, always dressed in white. A good lady, with a beautiful fireplace!

In Symphony in White No. 3, she has company. Two beautiful women in white. Maybe have a heart to heart.

What are these titles? Well, Whistler’s famous mother painting is officially called Arrangement in gray and black. He explored the variations of these colors, how they came together, echoed each other. He does the same in his Symphonies. Whistler’s white wasn’t just white. There are several colors mixed together. “So there was a heat,” says MacDonald. “It’s not cool white.”

Painters like to work with white. Nice texture. Fun to use.

“Whistler has a big brush, enough paint on it, and the slam is like a mosaic of colors. It all feels good. If you’re an artist, you like that!” she says.

Art lovers too. Although Joanna Hiffernan wrote to a friend about some 19th century reactions to Whistler Symphony No. 1, the centerpiece of the National Gallery exhibition: “The white girl caused a stir, for and against. Some stupid painters don’t understand it at all. Old duffers can totally refuse it.”

And they did. But not for long!

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