James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Wapping, 1860–61, oil on canvas, 72 x 101.8cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
In October 1860 a friend from Whistler’s student days, George du Maurier, wrote, ‘we are immense chums, though I see less of him now for he is working hard and in secret down in Rotherhithe, among a beastly set of cads and every possible annoyance and misery, doing one of the greatest chefs d’oeuvres – no difficulty discourages him.’ Whistler was based near the Port of London. In March 1861 the census recorded Whistler (‘painter/ printer’) lodging in Greenwich with his ‘wife’, ‘Anne Heffernan’ – Joanna (‘Jo’) Hiffernan, his red-haired Irish mistress and chief model. She had posed in Paris for The White Girl (1861; National Gallery of Art), and was the central figure in the potential ‘chef d’oeuvre’: Wapping.
Whistler described Jo as having ‘the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! a red not golden but copper – as Venetian as a dream! – skin golden white or yellow if you will.’ Whistler told Fantin-Latour that he had painted her three times, giving her a mocking expression; she had, Whistler wrote, ‘l’air superieurement putin’ – meaning ‘putain’ – in other words, she looked like a whore.
It is quite possible that in 1859 Whistler had seen J.R. Spencer Stanhope’s first Royal Academy (R.A.) exhibit, Thoughts of the Past, which showed a ‘guilt-ridden’ red-haired prostitute by a window that looked out on the Thames, painted in vivid colour and Pre-Raphaelite detail. However, judging by Whistler’s letter, in his original concept Jo represented an unrepentant ‘putain’ with clients. He sent a sketch to Fantin-Latour, describing Wapping as follows:
There are three people – an old man in a white shirt the one in the middle who is looking out of the window – then on the right in the corner, a sailor in a cap and a blue shirt with a big collar turned back in a lighter blue, who is chatting to a girl who is jolly difficult to paint! … Now all that against the light and in consequence in atrociously difficult muted colours … Her neck is exposed – her blouse can be seen almost entirely and how well it is painted mon cher – and then a jacket … in a white material with big arabesques and flowers of all colours!
He then described the carefully observed but freely painted background:
Whistler worked on Wapping on and off for four years. He replaced the old man with a portrait of the artist Alphonse Legros. In March 1863 Whistler moved into 7 Lindsey Row, Chelsea, where, in April, Jo took Whistler’s half-brother, George, and Benjamin Moran, Secretary to the American Legation, to see Wapping. Moran admired Jo, ‘an Irish girl with the golden tresses of a Venus and eyes as large as those of Juno’, and Whistler’s ‘remarkable pictures’:
through the window you can see the whole Thames! The background is like an etching – and was unbelievably difficult! The sky for example is very truly and splendidly painted – there is a corner which can be seen through the window panes which is excellent! – Nearer that is a row of large boats one of which is unloading coal and right by the window the mast and yellow sail of a lighter and just by the head of the girl … there is the bowsprit of another large boat, the ropes and pulleys of which go across the whole picture … it will certainly be said that it is not finished – because as the boats leave I have only just time to put in their shades of colour.
One was … a river scene at Blackwall … A drunken sailor, with his Molly, is drinking and smoking on the balcony of a Thames grog shop and the river is one jam of vessels – ships, steamers, brigs, colliers and tugs – while the air smells of tar and of that odor that Londoners swear kills those who live by the Thames.
Moran’s description of the woman as a ‘Molly’ means that she was depicted as a prostitute, but the emphasis shifted as Whistler modified the figures. Whistler repainted Jo’s head and covered the arabesques, creating a darker, more reflective image, although still with an underlying sensuality. In December Dante Gabriel Rossetti said the sailor was ‘hardly yet commenced’ and Legros was being turned into ‘a sort of Spanish sailor’. A few months later, Whistler’s mother described the subject as:
The Thames & so much of its life, shipping, buildings, steamers, coal heavers, passengers going ashore, all so true to the peculiar tone of London & its river scenes, it is so improved by his perseverance to perfect it, a group on the Inn balcony has yet to have the finishing touches …
These ‘touches’ must have been barely dry, for the painting was exhibited in the Royal Academy in May 1964 to a decidely mixed response. MM
Coinciding with the release of our new book An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, an exhibition showcasing Whistler’s Thames work is running at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014; Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 1 February – 13 April 2014; and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2 May – 17 August 2014.