Women in White

1. Frederic Leighton, Pavonia, oil on canvas, Rome/London, 1858-59, Private Collection c/o Christie’s. Image source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/16489

I was remiss in posting last month! Luckily, the thought-provoking Kirsty Walker has made a call to art detectives today at her blog The Kissed Mouth, which has inspired this post.

For those of us who study Aestheticism, white dresses can be tricky. When we see a romantic vision of a woman in a billowing white dress, we often wish to label the lovely lady ‘Aesthetic’. But the truth is, if you begin to study public collections of Victorian dress, as I have been lucky enough to do, you begin to see that there were in fact a plethora of white dresses from this period – many of which were cut in mainstream styles. Let’s think about it logically… you are a fashionable Victorian woman, ca. 1860, who wouldn’t be caught dead in public without proper undergarments (corset, crinoline, etc.). It is summer. It is hot. What colour are you going to wear? And won’t you also pick a light, frothy fabric like muslin that won’t weigh you down even more than you already are?

Just as many of us still see white as a ‘summer’ colour, this was the case with Victorian dress. So while colour can certainly signify Aesthetic (sage green, sunflower yellow, etc.), I don’t think white can necessarily give us that definitive clue. With white dresses, I’ve started to look more carefully at the cut, and perhaps more specifically the styling, to try and think about whether a dress might be classified as Aesthetic, Artistic, or both.

This isn’t to say that white dresses aren’t an important part of studying Artistic Dress, they have in fact featured prominently in my research.

2. G.F. Watts, Sophia Dalrymple, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 198 x 78.7 cm. Collection: Watts Gallery, Compton (COMWG.200).

To begin, I think the original ‘Woman in White’ from this period was Watts’ Portrait of Sophia Dalrymple. Dalrymple, one of the famed and beauteous Pattle sisters (which included Julia Margaret Cameron), enjoyed an element of priviledged freedom in the upper class but artsy home of her sister, Sarah Prinsep, at Little Holland House. (The Pattles are central to my own research, but for now, if you are intrigued to know more, I’ll refer you to Caroline Dakers’ excellent book The Holland Park Circle.) From my thesis:

…as early as 1851, Watts painted Sophia Dalrymple in a flowing white gown, more than a decade before other famous paintings of women in white, such as Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl of 1864 [fig 3], or Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1864-68 [fig. 5], and yet the Holland Park Circle has not been given much consideration in literature on the origins of Aesthetic Dress. And Watts’ was not the only ‘woman in white’ portrait of this era: in 1858-9, future Holland Park resident and Royal Academy president Frederic Leighton painted his favourite model, the exotic Italian Nanna Risi, in a full sleeved pristinely white garment in Pavonia [fig. 1 above].[1]

What is particularly noteworthy in studying many of these depictions of women in white – and where the portrait examples here depart from Kirsty’s example – is that most are ‘uncrinolined’, as contemporaries put it. It is in fact this ‘uncrinolined’ state which has given the female wearers of Artistic Dress their rather bohemian reputation. What follows is an excerpt from PhD chapter three (Artistic Dress and Second-Wave Pre-Raphaelitism), titled ‘(Uncrinolined) Women in White’, which discusses this form of styling as well as the possible symbolic implications of white:

In her 1889 autobiography, the poet Mary Howitt described a studio party given by Rossetti in 1861:

The uncrinolined women, with their wild hair, which was very beautiful, their picturesque dress and rich colouring, looking like figures out of the pre-Raphaelite pictures… I can think of it now like some hot struggling dream, in which the gorgeous and fantastic forms moved slowly about. They seemed all so young and kindred to each other, that I felt as if I were out of my place, though I admired them all.[2]

3. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, 213 x 108cm. Collection: The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

In February 1862, George du Maurier described a visit paid to him by his friend ‘Jimmy’ Whistler, and his mistress (and model) Joanna Hiffernan:

Joe came with him to me on the Monday afternoon, got up like a duchess, without crinoline—the mere making up of her bonnet by Madame somebody or other in Paris cost 50 fr. And Jimmy describes all the Parisians on the boulevard as aghast at ‘la belle Anglaise!’[3]

Here, at the start of this decade, we have two instances where models – women entrenched in artistic circles – are publicly seen without their crinolines. As evidenced in the images of the Pattle sisters during the 1850s, this was not a new, but a growing trend amongst this set… Pre-Raphaelite painting also depicts uncrinolined costume, but the historic and literary subject matter (in essence, fantasy) allowed for these liberties. Watts’ 1851 portrait of Sophia Dalrymple, however, pushes these boundaries in that the distinction is blurred between a possibly classically attired subject, and an intimate contemporary portrait. Is Dalrymple in costume, or is she simply dressed in the kind of garments she and her sisters wore in their intimate circle? Was the costume of art bleeding into life at the start of the 1860s, as these quotes suggest?

It was an exciting time to be in Holland Park, as was discovered by a new denizen of the circle: James McNeill Whistler. After seeing Whistler’s At the Piano (1858-59) at the Royal Academy, Watts brought him to the attention of Luke Ionides, the now adult son of Watt’s early patron Alexander Ionides. Through this connection, Whistler began to gain commissions from – and thereby entrance to – the Holland Park Circle. There, he would have seen at least paintings of women in white, Watts’ portrait of Dalrymple and possibly Leighton’s portrait of his favourite model Nanna Risi as Pavonia. Perhaps following in their footsteps after spending time at Little Holland House, Whistler also painted Hiffernan in a white gown, but certainly with a more daring edge. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (fig. 3), painted during the winter of 1861-62, shows her in a simple white dress falling straight to the floor, ‘uncrinolined’ and with ‘wild hair’, much like the descriptions in the aforementioned quotations. Alongside Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’hérbe, it caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, for the depiction of her was surely a signifier of her fallen state.

4. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm. Collection: Tate Britain, Bequeathed by Arthur Studd, 1919 (NO3418).

In terms of symbolism, The White Girl has been discussed in numerous other places—in particular, the signification of her white dress, from its alignment to virginal purity to its relationship to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, published just two years prior, has been of interest.[4] In terms of costume, it was given careful attention alongside Whistler’s other two ‘symphony’ portraits of Hiffernan in white, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) [fig. 4] and Symphony in White No. 3 (1865-67), in Patricia de Montfort’s 2003 essay ‘White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s.’[5] Drawing connections between these depictions and domesticity, rather than the typical ‘fall from grace’, de Montfort points to the deliberate choice of fabric colour in relation to Whistler’s own aesthetics:

Cambric, the finely woven linen Whistler used in The White Girl, and muslin, a sheer plain-weave cotton of soft texture used for Hiffernan’s dress in The Little White Girl, are fabrics associated with modesty and home life rather than showy public display. In 1864 white was the antithesis of the new chemically produced aniline dyes in colors such as electric blue and magenta, popular for modish outdoor and day wear… Whistler sought out the appropriate fabric to create the luminescent effect he desired.[6]

Furthermore, the dress in The White Girl evokes a sense of modesty in its high neckline and long sleeves, which is not far removed from respectable conventions of the time. It is the styling, however, which raises eyebrows, the loose hair, the lack of supportive undergarments. But it is worth considering whether the ‘whiteness’ of this dress renders it more respectable – and perhaps even ‘artistic’ rather than scandalous, even though it is worn in such a fashion. In terms of the signification of the dress, another ‘white girl’ painted in the same year makes for an interesting comparison: Rossetti’s Lady Lilith [fig. 5], which was, in fact, painted for Frederick R. Leyland, a patron who would become critical for Whistler in the coming years.

5. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1868, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 32 in. Bancroft Collection, Delaware Museum of Art.

Rossetti’s painting depicts Lilith, the original ‘fallen woman’, at her toilette, and was modelled first by Fanny Cornforth, and then Rossetti later repainted the face with that of Alexa Wilding. She is depicted en déshabillé at her dressing table, surrounded by symbolic flowers as she combs out her rich red hair. Lilith is dressed in a loose white gown save for a red ribbon wrapped about her wrist, which falls suggestively along her lap.  White roses surround her, with a single, large red poppy rising prominently in front of her in the lower right. All of these suggest the complex purity/impurity Venus connotations of this first wife of Adam. Although Rossetti’s intention is to depict a ‘Modern Lilith’, the fantastical aspects of his rendering of space relate a more timeless aspect.

In contrast, both of Whistler’s white girls present such complexity in a somewhat more subversive manner, and through the use of less-revealing Victorian dresses, and more contemporary, recognisable spaces, which are of course suitable in that they are contemporary subjects rather than a historical motif. However, both The Little White Girl and Lady Lilith have a similar inventory of objects: mirrors, flowers, and a decorative vase. But whereas Rossetti’s is an undefined, almost claustrophobic space, Whistler presents us with an elegant example of Japonisme that would have been much more familiar and comfortable to the Victorian viewer (despite the ‘vague sense of time and place’[7] Whistler creates) – a real scene, as it was painted in Whistler and Hiffernan’s own dining room in their house on Lindsey Row. One final, important touch separates the Little White Girl from Lilith: the former wears a wedding band, which we are visually drawn to by her gaze and the positioning of her finger on the mantle.

It could be argued that both artists use the white dresses symbolically to raise questions about the sexual state of the subject. In each case, the white dress is entrenched in the symbolism of the painting, and as such become little more than another prop for artistic expression. But perhaps that is a way to think about the same dresses as worn by these women in their real-world social interactions? Would Joanna Hiffernan, so exquisitely (if controversially) articulated by Whistler’s hand in these images, not wish to be seen as the White Girl ‘in the flesh’, as it were? In particular, being from a working class background, a certain self-fashioning – a sense of artistic style – would perhaps be the thing that admitted her to the aforementioned social circles Whistler inhabited.

6. James McNeill Whistler, The Artist in his Studio, 1865/66, oil on paper mounted on panel, 62.9 x 46.4 cm (24 3/4 x 18 1/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection (1912.141).

It would possibly be ill-conceived to consider these works as examples of Hiffernan’s personal sartorial codes, were it not for Du Maurier’s observations, the Victorian cut of the garments, and perhaps one final bit of visual evidence: in Whistler’s 1865-6 painting The Artist in his Studio (fig. 6), Hiffernan reclines in the dress from The White Girl (or one very similar), casually chatting with another model holding a Japanese fan and wearing a loose pale pink gown reminiscent of a kimono. It evokes the sense of a moment captured (albeit clearly posed and conceived by the artist) which allows us to consider that this might be an example of her style, either of her own doing or at the hands of Whistler.

And the dresses are not historic (or fantasy) costume, but examples of actual Victorian garments.

7. Dress, 1864, bleached tartalan muslin with matching sash. Collection: The Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Misses Braman (47.83.1ab). Image source: Catalogue of the exhibition Whistler, Women and Fashion (see link in text below).

In fact, de Montfort identifies a dress very near identical to the one in The Little White Girl, in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York (identified by De Montfort in the catalogue Whistler, Women and Fashion) [fig. 7]. The dress is of bleached linen tarlatan, with ruched sleeves and bodice, likely a day dress made for walking in the summer months. The full skirt would have certainly been worn with a crinoline. In Whistler’s painting, however, we can see from the fall of the skirt in the painting that Hiffernan posed without crinoline; the ruched fabric provides what fullness is there. Is this, perhaps, an example of what du Maurier witnessed? She is without crinoline in the other symphonies, as well as The Artist in his Studio. Whistler, like Rossetti, was very interested in the fall of drapery, something which the ballooning effect of hoops or crinoline would have detrimentally marred. Is it too great a leap (perhaps too lacking in feminist principles) to suggest that the women who associated with these artists would have shared such aesthetics – whether under the influence of the ‘male gaze’, or through their own senses of beauty and comfort?

But to return to the styling of the models, the white dresses are in my view representative of developing Artistic fashion, and as well foreshadowing the coming demise of the bell skirt. Hiffernan wears them sans crinoline, just as Pre-Raphaelite women in the 1860s were doing in studio parties, and the Pattle sisters doing in their ‘At Homes’ from the 1850s on … The complex relations between artist and model, male and female, woman and muse, were crafting an intriguing dynamic whereby garments of costume were becoming garments of use.

Perhaps that is the case in Kirsty’s painting. If this work was indeed painted towards the end of the century, we would have been well into the phase where ‘costume’ (as we understand the term today), and Artistic Dress, had influenced mainstream dress to the extent that such a garment might be worn by a fashionable-but-mainstream lady, with just a touch of bohemian in her soul.

[1] We see what is likely the same garment as an undertunic in Leighton’s A Roman Lady (La Nanna) [Philadelphia Museum of Art], painted around the same time.

[2] Mary Botham Howitt and Margaret Howitt, Mary Howitt: Volume 2: An Autobiography (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] Margaret F MacDonald, “East and West: Sources and Influences,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Aileen Ribiero, Margaret MacDonald, and Susan Grace Galassi (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 85.

[4] See for example Robin Spencer, “Whistler’s ‘The White Girl’: Painting, Poetry and Meaning,” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 140, no. No. 1142 (May 1998): 300–311.

[5] Patricia de Montfort, “White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Aileen Ribiero, Margaret MacDonald, and Susan Grace Galassi (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 77–91.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ibid.

Author: Robyne Calvert

Cultural Historian... art, design, architecture, fashion, etc.

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