Whistler started painting The
White Girl in December 1861, while he was living in Paris.
The model was his mistress Joanna Heffernan, but the main subject
of the painting is its subtle range of white color. Rejected
by the Royal Academy, it was first shown in London in 1862, and
then at the Salon des Refuses the following year, where it caused
a furor. In London
the painting was seen as an attempt to illustrate Wilkie Collins' recent novel The Woman in White; in Paris it was interpreted as mourning lost innocence. But whistler denounced such specific interpretations, and later prefixed the original title with Symphony in White, No. 1.
A red-haired model: Joanna Heffernan's red hair
provides a perfect contrast to the subtle tones of the
background, as Whistler implied in an enthusiastic
description of the painting: "The picture", he wrote,
"barring the red hair, is one gorgeous mass of brilliant
|Shades of white: This detail shows the broken lily in the girl's hand - interpreted as a symbol of lost innocence. The flower, dress and cuff are all subtle variations of the color white.|
The bear-skin rug: The tones and textures of the bear-skin
rug, the blue of the carpet and the color of
the flowers all offset the white figure, while still
harmonizing with the whole.
|Johanna Heffernan: This etching by Whistler shows his mistress Jo, who modeled for The white Girl.|