Tuesday, April 26, 2022

A Glass Staircase to Whistler's Woman in White


A glass staircase at the Royal Academy of Arts

 There is a glass staircase in the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  

"What is this?  An art installation?"

I climbed steadily, if not spryly, up the stairs to the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy to visit an  exhibition I decided in retrospect I had flown across an ocean to see, "Whistler's Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan." 

I've loved James McNeill Whistler since I saw his Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  And I was  fascinated by the "Woman in White" exhibition because of the emphasis on the role of Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler's lover, friend, and favorite model.  She was the model for his three famous Symphony in White paintings, and also posed for other artists, including their friend Gustave Courbet.  


Symphony in White, No. 1:  The White Girl

The White Girl, later known as Symphony in White, No. 1, may have obliquely referred to Wilkie Collins's sensation novel, The Woman in White, though Whistler denied it and claimed he had not read the book.  In the painting, Jo looks gorgeous, mystical, and melancholy in a simple white dress, with her pre-Raphaelite red hair flowing over her shoulders. It is not difficult to imagine a resemblance between the portrait of Joanna Hiffernin and the eternally white-clad Anne Catherick in Collins's novel. Joe was thrilled by the rumors of a connection between the painting and Collins's book. Whistler, despite his denial, capitalized on the publicity.

But this was all to come, because I was, yes, still climbing the stairs.  It was like a never-ending scene in George MacDonald's Phantastes, a hallucinatory Victorian fantastic dream one can't break out of.

And then I emerged from the stairwell and saw what at first seemed an illusion across the room:  it was a glass elevator!  You mean I could have ridden up in another art installation? 

The paintings were breathtaking.  In a way, the paintings and their placards provide an integrated experience of the perspectives of artist and model. 

By the way, I also love the courtyard, where I once saw tree sculptures by Ai Wei Wei.  At the moment, there is a small outdoor cafe there.  And though I complained about climbing the glass staircase, next time I'll prepare by walking hills or the stairmaster.


  1. Yes very nice. You communicate the joy you felt upon climbing up towards and experiencing the painting.

  2. I've always loved her "outside of contemporary fashion" gown. With the uncorseted silhouette and softly draped skirt, it couldn't be farther away from the garments of 1860-61 (think GWTW hooped skirts and aggressive corsetry). The dress doesn't date the painting explicitly. There is definitely a Pre-Raphaelite (Jane Morris) air to it. Thanks for sharing your insights! I hope you had a good trip!