Several possible titles have been suggested:
The 'White Girls' were given their numbering retrospectively. After the third one went to exhibition as Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061] in 1867, the 'Little White Girl' was given the additional title of Symphony in White, No. 2, emphasising the importance of reading the picture as an arrangement of colours. The first picture in the series, The White Girl, became known as Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl [YMSM 038].
A three-quarter length portrait of a woman standing in profile to right, in vertical format. She has dark red hair, and wears a round-necked white dress with long sleeves. She is leaning with her left arm along a white mantlepiece, and her face is reflected in the mirror above it. Her right arm hangs down, holding a colourful Asian fan. There is a small red bowl and a larger blue and white Chinese vase on the mantlepiece. Pink and lilac azaleas appear at lower right. In the mirror, paintings on the opposite wall are reflected.
The Asian fan or hand-screen was decorated with a woodcut by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), The Banks of the Sumida River from the set of Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. 11 Dating from 1857, it shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue and green. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and, on the left, several barges. 12
The Pennells commented on the studio surroundings:
'Japan is in the detail of blue and white on the mantel ; the girl holds a Japanese fan ; a spray of azalea trails across her dress. But these were part of Whistler's house, part of the reality he had created for himself, and he made them no more beautiful than the mantel, the grate of the English house, than the reflection in the mirror.' 13
The mirror and mantlepiece against which the model is said to have posed are shown in a photograph of the interior of Whistler's house in Lindsey Row, reproduced by the Pennells. 14 It is not absolutely certain that they identified the room correctly.
She wears a similar dress in several paintings including Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl [YMSM 038], The Artist's Studio [YMSM 062], and The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio) [YMSM 063]. 16
On 26 January 1885 Francis Short (1857-1945), then a student at the Royal Institute Schools, sent Whistler 'a sketch on copper of your picture "The little White Girl" ' from a photograph that had been shown by George Clausen (1852-1944) to the students 'as an Example of the kind of work we should aim after'; Short added, 'We all went pretty well mad over it ... it has made such a revolution in my ideas of work that I think it ought to be known to all students of today' and he asked permission to publish a plate of it. 17
The fan by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), The Banks of the Sumida River (1857) was discussed by MacDonald:
'Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, exhibited at the RA in 1865, showed Jo reflected in a mirror over a mantelpiece in Lindsey Row. The ostentatiously aesthetic decor included blue and white Chinese porcelain, and she held an Asian fan or hand-screen decorated with a woodcut by Hiroshige, The Banks of the Sumida River from the set of Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. Dating from 1857, it had taken at most seven years to sail from Japan to London. The fan shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue and green. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and on the left, several barges. The striking composition and broad bands of rich colour fascinated the artist. In subject, composition and detail such prints had a strong influence on Whistler.
Whistler’s collection was sold when he went bankrupt: "Japanese hand screens" – possibly including Jo’s fan – were listed in the sale catalogue by Baker & Sons in 1879. "Eighteen Japanese Picture Books" were among items sold at Sotheby’s in 1880. Marcus B. Huish, Director of the Fine Art Society, bought these books, and noted their impact on Whistler’s later Battersea Bridge compositions.' 18
Frances Fowle wrote, for the Tate website :
'It shows a young woman ... gazing dreamily into a mirror. She is captured in a moment of deep contemplation. Her face is reflected in the mirror and silhouetted against a seascape, reinforcing the dream-like atmosphere. The reflected image is sad and careworn, and one is tempted to draw some kind of link with the wedding ring so prominently displayed on her left hand. Whistler may also have intended to evoke Velasquez's Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London), where the reflection of the woman's face is similarly at odds with her own idealised image.' 19
Expanding on this commentary, including the link with Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), Christopher Newall wrote:
'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 ... In passing, one wonders whether Charles Dodgson ('Lewis Carroll') saw Whistler's painting ... 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 Velazquez'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.' 20
3: 97th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1865 (cat. no. 530).
6: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 33).
7: VI. Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Königlicher Glaspalast, Munich, 1892 (cat. no. 1950a).
8: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 28).
9: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 5).
11: An impression of this fan-shaped print, in different colours, was acquired by the V&A in 1886; V&A E.12087-1886. MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Whistler and the Thames', in: MacDonald, Margaret, and Patricia de Montfort, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Addison Gallery of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art, 2013-2014, pp. 22-24, figs. 18, 19 (cat. no. 80).
12: Whistler’s collection was sold when he went bankrupt. ‘Japanese hand screens’ – possibly including the fan – were listed in the sale catalogue by Baker & Sons in 1879: Baker & Sons, The White House, Tite Street Chelsea ..., London, 18 September 1879 (lot 53). Items sold at Sotheby’s, Catalogue of the Decorative Porcelain Cabinet, Paintings, and other Works of Art of J.A. McN. Whistler, London, 12 February 1880, included lot 74, ‘18 Japanese Picture Books, Sketches of landscapes and figures, some coloured’ and ‘14 loose drawings’, and lot 77, ‘Twenty Volumes of Books, various’, which were sold for £3 7s 6d and £5 10s to M. B. Huish, Director of the Fine Art Society. Huish noted their impact on Whistler’s later compositions (M. B. Huish, ‘English appreciation of Japanese Art’, The Japan Society, London. Transactions & Proceedings, VII, 14th, 15th & 16th sessions, 1905–1907, p. 126). See MacDonald 2013-2014, op. cit., pp. 22-24; see also Ono 2003 [more], pp. 59-60.
16: de Montfort, Patricia, 'White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s', in MacDonald 2003 [more], pp. 76-91, at pp. 86-90, figs. 82, 86; dress from the Museum of the City of New York (47.83.1ab), ca 1864, fig. 85.
18: MacDonald 2013-2014, op. cit., pp. 22-24.
20: Fortnightly Review, vol. 4 (NS), 1868, pp. 16-40, quoted in Wilton, Andrew, Robert Upstone, et al, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, Tate Britain, London, 1997, pp. 116-17 (cat. no. 15).
Last updated: 7th June 2021 by Margaret