James Whistler will always be an unprecedented and charismatic figure in the history of painting. However, even if we know about his importance for many an advent-guard movement and his quarrel with Victorian art critic John Ruskin, we know little about his relationship with Joanna Hiffernan.

In this highly informative interview, Margaret MacDonald allows us to know more about the research which led to The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James Mcneill Whistler and an eagerly awaited exhibition.

What can you tell us about the research and challenges you faced while writing this volume and creating the exhibition?

It was a complex mix of technical, Curatorial, art historical, documentary and biographical puzzles that had to be solved, starting with establishing birth and death dates for Whistler’s most important model! At the beginning, we didn’t know at all what the results would be. It took a long time for things to fall into place. Identifying the Hiffernans was hard and frustrating but in the end, illuminating. We needed a sort of art and biography timeline (I had already worked a lot on Whistler’s correspondence, and more recently, on his wonderful etchings and drypoints, and had moved on to the paintings and works on paper). I had to assess and check every story (in letters, documents, books, labels, catalogues, etc.) against known facts, and if not facts, then reasonable possibilities. We also had to look very closely indeed at the works of art, mostly with the inspired help of two conservators, Joanna Dunn and Joyce H. Townsend: and all this had to be woven into our story, and written in a way that made it comprehensible not just to scholars but everyone.

Symphony in White No. 1 is one of the most loved and enigmatic portraits of all time? Was it the starting point for writing the book? What can you tell us about its evolution?

In the 1990s my co-curator and I had worked together with the Tate and National Gallery curators on a major Whistler retrospective: meeting again with Charlie Brock some five years ago, we fell to discussing what questions we had about Whistler in general and specific works, and what we felt needed to be reconsidered about Whistler’s work, and what we actually wanted to do. I was particularly interested not only in Whistler’s work but in the part played by his family and models, and in the actual working practices of the artist: Charles, in the links with American artists and the international context.

The White Girl was the obvious starting point: it was a major and iconic work in the National Gallery but it had not actually been studied in coherent detail (though the artist files in the gallery filled shelf after shelf). We were able to consider the significance of it being painted and shown in Paris, and how that affected its creation, as well as the significant impact the painting had on artists in France. That led to its very different reception in Britain and comparisons with the painting processes that developed over time as seen in the other paintings of Hiffernan. Then we looked closely at each painting and print in turn and how they evolved, and what that meant in the evolution of the works of art and the artist-model partnership.

I did not realize how much would emerge from both the historical and technical research, and how exciting, difficult and ultimately rewarding the whole project would be! I worked with a wonderful team of conservators, curators, academic colleagues, family, and we had arguments (discussion) and questions (problems) and very exciting discoveries, all of which had to be combined, written up, annotated, edited, checked and rechecked… right up to the last minute of the second to last proof!

The book accompanies a future exhibition, which will also present other masters of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Era. How were these masterpieces chosen, in order to depict Whistler and his era?

We looked at literally 1000s of White on white paintings, but we always knew there was a core of masterpieces that we wanted and needed for the exhibition. For a book, it would have been easy, but getting the right selection, and not too many, for exhibition, was vital. Each had to meet certain criteria, preferably beautiful and definitely in good condition, by an artist who knew or had some distinct connection with Whistler, with works that demonstrated similarities in style, subject or composition with one of Whistler’s White paintings. We failed to get two paintings that we had wanted but found a perfectly good substitute for one of these (one I actually liked more, as a painting), and we had some very surprising successes. There was a lot of vigorous discussion in making the final selection!

Do you think there was a difference in the personal and professional relationship between Whistler and Hiffernan, compared to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their muses?

Yes, to a certain extent, but it is difficult to define. Hiffernan appears to have retained a close relationship with her sisters, Whistler with his family. Whistler and his close circle overlapped with some of the PreRaphs but was not part of it; Hiffernan knew them too and seems to have got on ok with some of them, particularly Rossetti, and the artist Frederick Sandys. I have heard it said that the hope of the models was undoubtedly stability, and the ultimate aim could have been a marriage with the artists concerned, but this is not certain, and though people have speculated, there is no actual evidence of Hiffernan’s wishes on these matters.

A professional relationship: well, even though they did not marry, Hiffernan was given power of attorney and named as Whistler’s heir when he was absent for a prolonged time. She did have business responsibilities. But there is much we do not know about her as well as about the Pre-Raph ‘muses’.

Whistler and Hiffernan were very close for a long time, and though she may have modeled less for him she and her sister took on the task of looking after his son: they were a close domestic group, and comfortable with that, and maintained contact with Whistler. But ultimately we are still short on information.

Whistler always had a difficult relationship with many American and British critics. Why do you think his art was so controversial?

It was different! And the critics, well, many of them weren’t really looking closely at the works or thinking very carefully. They wanted pictures to fit into certain categories, into a pattern of earlier works, subjects, categories, to tell stories, to be highly finished, etc. And he certainly was not a typical Victorian painter. But there were critics who supported him. With his portraits, some of which could be associated with the old masters, Rembrandt and Velasquez, then he became more accepted. Trouble was, once he got a name for attacking critics, they rather ganged up on him for a while. But they were not all against him: he had strong supporters, for instance, in the artist Walter Sickert, and the architect E.W. Godwin, and several writers in France including Theodore Duret, and this helped to balance the unfavorable or mocking reviews in some papers. He wasn’t exactly a Pre-Raphaelite or an Impressionist or a Realist or a Symbolist, though close to these movements or groups of artists at various times. And this is still, apparently, a problem for some art critics who want to pigeon hole him.

Can you already tell us about your future projects as a writer and a curator?

I am finishing the catalogue raisonné of Whistler’s paintings and it is available online1 and free to all, beautiful, wonderful! I invite everyone to have a look, see what you think, enjoy! It is launched on 1 December but I will continue to revise and extend it: that is part of the beauty of online publication. And I have an essay to write, and preparations in connection with Whistler, Art and Legacy, an exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow by a colleague, Dr. Patricia de Montfort, next summer, 11 June-3 October 2021 (postponed from 2020) and a conference in the autumn. Followed by The Woman in White in 2022 (Royal Academy of Art, London, February 23-May 23, 2022, and National Gallery of Art, DC, July 3-October 10, 2022) with lots of work on design, panels and labels to be written.

And then I plan to do some painting and perhaps have an exhibition myself!

1 Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, James McNeill Whistler: The paintings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2020.