Joanna Hiffernan

 The White Girl
 Hiffernan - Hautefeuiile
 Rue Hautefeuille in the 1860s. Courbet's studio and apartment would have been behind the building on the left
Joanna Hiffernan (c. 1843 – after 1903), mistress and model for James Whistler and probable subject of one of the most (in)famous pictures in history, was thus summed
up by one of Whistler’s biographers, G. H. Fleming: “Jo was even-tempered and good-natured, but she was also coarse and vulgar, and eventually Whistler became bored with and embarrassed by her.” The truth might be more complex.

Beyond the fact that her parents were Irish, little appears to be known of where Hiffernan (or Heffernan) was born or when she died. She met the vainglorious Whistler in London at the end of 1859 or beginning of 1860 and first travelled with him to Paris in July 1861. They stayed there until September, when they went to Brittany, but were back in Paris in November, working in a studio on the Boulevard des Batignolles (17th arrondissement) overlooking the mainline railroad into Gare St. Lazare. Here, he painted Jo in the portraits A White Note and The White Girl.

Jo and Whistler moved back in London in early 1862 but were in Paris again in March-May 1864. Fleming suggests that Jo had become pregnant and that during this trip her newborn child was given up for adoption in France.
Jo and Whistler met the French painter Gustave Courbet In the seaside resort of Trouville in the autumn of 1865. Courbet became captivated by Hiffernan, and she quickly agreed to pose for him, resulting in Portrait de Jo, la belle Irlandaise. Jo called on Courbet in Paris in 1866, at a time when Whistler had left Europe for Chile (possibly to avoid a possible round up of Fenian sympathizers, for Whistler was a friend of John O’Leary).

She turned up at Courbet’s studio at 32, rue Hautefeuille (6th arrondissement, address no longer exists) for the first time in August 1866 and probably started an affair with him. Courbet spent much of his time at the Brasserie Andler at 24, rue Hautefeuille (address no longer exists), and no doubt Jo was dragged along there during her short stay. Jo was one of the two women in sapphic pose that Courbet portrayed in Le Sommeil before offering her anatomy for the famous L’Origine du Monde (not a painting for the faint-hearted). Not surprisingly perhaps, Jo’s relationship with Whistler broke down after they both met again in London.

Remarkably, however, another product of Whistler’s moral waywardness, a son called Charles James Hanson (apparently born of
 another woman) was later brought up by Jo. According to French writer Christine Orban, Jo ended up as a “respectable antique dealer in Aix-en-Provence” and she was still alive in 1903 when she attended Whistler’s funeral in London.

The tale of Joanna Hiffernan and L’Origine du Monde took a fresh twist in early 2013 when Paris Match claimed an art lover called "John" had bought the slightly less scandalous upper half of the painting from an antiques dealer for 1,400 euros one rainy day in January 2010. But the French press was quick to rubbish the claims made by the magazine that L’Origine du Monde ever formed part of a larger work. Possibly the best demolition job was courtesy of Philippe Dagen in his blog posting entitled "Le poids des mots, le choc du faux" (a play on Paris Match’s famous slogan, "Le poids des mots, le choc des photos").

Select Bibliography
Joanna Hiffernan James Abbot McNeil Whistler: Beyond the Myth (1994)
Ronald Anderson & Anne Koval

James Abbot McNeill Whistler: A Life (1991)
G.H. Fleming

Courbet (1995)
Bruno Foucart

Whistler in His Time (1994)
Anne Koval

J’étais l’origine du monde (2002)
Christine Orban

L’origine du monde: histoire d’un tableau (2006)
Thierry Savatier

Whistler: A Biography (1974)
Stanley Weintraub