James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist active during the American Gilded Age. Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol was apt, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, the revered and oft-parodied portrait of motherhood. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.
In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently. The critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride’s lost innocence. Others linked it to Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, a popular novel of the time, or various other literary sources. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. In the painting, Hiffernan holds a lily in her left hand and stands upon a bear skin rug (interpreted by some to represent masculinity and lust) with the bear’s head staring menacingly at the viewer. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the title The Woman in White. In 1863 it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
Whistler’s painting was widely noticed, although upstaged by Manet’s more shocking painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Countering criticism by traditionalists, Whistler’s supporters insisted that the painting was “an apparition with a spiritual content” and that it epitomized his theory that art should be concerned essentially with the arrangement of colors in harmony, not with a literal portrayal of the natural world.
Two years later, Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time displaying his newfound interest in Asian motifs, which he entitled The Little White Girl. His Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again portray his mistress, in even more emphatic Asian dress and surroundings. During this period Whistler became close to Courbet, the early leader of the French realist school, but when Hiffernan modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and his relationship with Hiffernan began to fall apart. In January 1864, Whistler’s very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son’s bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, “General upheaval! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.” He also immediately moved Hiffernan to another location.