Whistler’s Woman in White through the lens of copyright history

Posted on: May 16, 2022 by

In February a new exhibition opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London about the painter and printmaker James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903): Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan, which runs until 22 May 2022, before moving to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (3 July to 22 October 2022). The centre-piece of the exhibition is Whistler’s full-length portrait of Hiffernan Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl, which was exhibited for the first time in London in summer 1862 (detail on left and full-length image below right). In an article I recently published in The Burlington Magazine, I have argued that copyright history provides ‘an unexplored context for understanding this radically innovative portrait’.

In Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan, the curators, Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy and the Whistler expert Prof. Margaret Macdonald of the University of Glasgow, open up Whistler’s work to interdisciplinary engagement, by asking open and contextual questions, rather than a narrower focus on the relation between artist and work. The exhibition innovates by placing the focus on a relatively unknown sitter – Joanna Hiffernan – who was Whistler’s principal model, muse and romantic partner in the 1860s. The exhibition brings together, for the first time, almost all known images of Hiffernan, and seeks to capture something of her own agency, in adopting a ‘more humanistic understanding of how these exquisite paintings, drawings and prints were made’ (Foreward to exhibition catalogue: MacDonald, The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, 2022, p.7).

In my Burlington Magazine article I connected the exhibition’s focus on Hiffernan with nineteenth century copyright debates about the position of the sitter to a portrait. The exhibition presents Whistler’s portraits as a result of ‘a collaboration between artist and model or sitter’, resulting from the ‘complex personal and artistic partnership’ of Whistler and Hiffernan (see MacDonald, above, at p.8 and p.33). From today’s standpoint, following the UK Court of Appeal ruling in Kogan v Martin [2019] EWCA Civ 1645, this brings to mind possible questions of joint authorship of the portraits on the part of Hiffernan. Of course, we lack a record of the Whistler/Hiffernan creative process, unlike certain portraits of more famous sitters (e.g. the actress Sarah Siddons, who claimed in her autobiography to have both determined her dramatic pose in Joshua Reynold’s portrait of her – Sarah (Kemble) Siddons Tragic Muse (1783-4) – and to have ‘intervened’ to prevent him from adding a final wash of colour to her face and neck). However, as my article explains, in the nineteenth century, sitters featured in copyright debates about painting as subjects, rather than joint authors, and I look to demonstrate how nineteenth century conceptualisations of the sitter in copyright debates provide a further lens through which to view the contradictions surrounding Whistler’s Symphony in White No.1, as identified by the curators in the Royal Academy exhibition.

The article also considered the nineteenth century legal issues raised by the title of Symphony in White No.1. Whistler intended the portrait to be abstract in nature – ‘my painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain’ (Whistler’s letter to The Athenaeum, 5 July 1862) – and resisted the marketing of the painting as ‘The Woman in White’, to refer to the mysterious character Anne Catherick in Wilkie Collins’ popular sensation novel of the same name. The Fine Arts Copyright Act 1862, section 7, enabled penalties to be recovered for certain unauthorised alterations of a work, and the article connects the Whistler example to later nineteenth century copyright debates considering the significance of titles to paintings: in what circumstances did a change of title also alter the work, and how did this legal question relate to aesthetic debates over the very meaning of art itself?

To find out more, the full article, ‘Whistler’s ‘Symphony in White No.1’ through the Lens of Copyright History’ in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 164, May 2022, can be found here (available for free, but only for the following 10 days!). And more details about the Royal Academy’s Whistler show can be found here.