Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910

JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER 1834-1903

15 The Little White Girl: Symphony in White No.2 1864

Oil on canvas 76.5 x 51.1 (30 1/8 x 20 1/8)
Inscribed 'Whistler' and originally dated '1864' upper right
Prov: Bt at the RA by Gerald Potter 1865; Arthur Studd 1893; by whom bequeathed to the National Gallery 1919; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1951
Exh: RA 1865 (530); International Exhibition, London 1872 (260); Goupil Gallery 1892 (33); Munich 1892 (1950a); Glasgow 1893; Antwerp 1894 (2369); Venice 1895 (363); Paris 1900 (76 in American section); Edinburgh 1902 (240); Boston 1904 (28); Paris 1905 (5); Tate Gallery 1994 (15)
Lit: Pennell and Pennell 1908, I, pp.127-30, 144, 147, 178, II, pp.251, 261-2, 280; revised ed. 1911, repr. opp. p.124 in its original frame; Sutton 1966, p.185, repr. as frontis.; Young et al. 1980, I, no.52, pp.28-9, II, pls.31, 371 (with further bibliography); Anderson and Koval 1994, pp.149-59, 353, 374, 390, 443

Tate Gallery. Bequeathed by Arthur Studd 1919

EXHIBITED IN LONDON ONLY

Whistler's painting The Little White Girl, as it was known when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, shows the artist's mistress Jo Hiffernan standing beside a fireplace in the house in Lindsey Row, Chelsea, that they shared. Dressed in white, and holding a Japanese fan, she gazes with unseeing eyes, apparently lost in thought. The reflected image of her head and face is seen in the looking-glass. The circumstances of her life are not specified (although she wears a wedding ring on the third finger of her left hand), and the spectator is left to imagine what events have caused her sad mood, or what her eventual fate might be.

Swinburne's poem 'Before the Mirror' was inspired by The Little White Girl, and its verses, written on sheets of gold paper, were attached to the flats of the original frame (sadly now not extant, but see fig.22 on p.39). The poem concludes:

Deep in the gleaming glass
She sees all past things pass,
And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.
There glowing ghosts of flowers
Draw down, draw nigh;
And wings of swift spent hours
Take flight and fly;
She sees by formless gleams,
She hears across cold streams,
Dead mouths of many dreams that sing and sigh.
Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why,
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men's tears beneath the sky.
In 1865 the Times critic found Swinburne's 'very beautiful but not very lucid verses' unhelpful as to the painting's meaning. 'Nevertheless', he concluded, 'the picture is one ... that means more than it says, though not so much perhaps as the poet has said for it. Thought and passion are under the surface of the plain features, giving them an undefinable attraction' (quoted in Young et al. 1980, I, p.29). The idea of a person being confronted by a past existence, or a sad premonition of what is to come - for while the girl standing before us is young and graceful, her mirrored image seems stooped and worn - appealed to a generation who looked for evidence of the spirit world in their daily surroundings and who sought the means of translation into the spheres of other worlds. In passing, one wonders whether Charles Dodgson ('Lewis Carroll') saw Whistler's painting at Trafalgar Square in 1865, and whether perhaps he may have had it in mind when writing Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871.

The detached way in which the spectator is invited to inspect the figure of a woman who faces away from the viewer and who seems to avoid psychological engagement, but the expression of whose face - as seen in the image of her reflection - may be studied quite independently, is surely owed to Whistler's memory of Vel zquez's Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London), which he must have seen at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857. In that painting, as in The Little White Girl, the careworn appearance of the woman as transmitted to the viewer through her reflection seems at odds with the idealised beauty of her actual presence.

Swinburne may perhaps have suggested to Whistler the notion of individuals coming upon themselves by supernatural agency and of the anxiety induced by such premonition of one's fate. In 1864, the year of The Little White Girl, Swinburne had visited Florence to study Renaissance paintings, and the essay that he subsequently wrote describing what he had seen explores this theme, in for example his account of paintings by Leonardo, whose works he found to be 'full of ... indefinable grace and grave mystery': 'Fair strange faces of women full of dim doubt and faint scorn; touched by the shadow of an obscure fate; eager and weary as it seems at once, pale and fervent with patience or passion; allure and perplex the eyes and thoughts of men. There is a study here of Youth and Age meeting; it may be, of a young man coming suddenly upon the ghostly figure of himself as he will one day be; the brilliant life in his face is struck into sudden pallor and silence, the clear eyes startled, the happy lips confused' (Fortnightly Review, vol.4 (NS), 1868, pp.16-40).

Christopher Newall

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.116-17 no.15, reproduced in colour p.116