Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mistress Muse

The Little White Girl, Whistler 1864
Every girl dreams of their wedding, their big day. Not I; I dreaded it. I never wanted to be that little white girl at the altar, and yet here I stand leaning against a mantelpiece in a pure white gown gazing at a ring on my left hand. Commissioned to pose by one lover, whilst dreaming of another: a new admirer, Gustave. He calls me 'La Belle Irlandaise', whereas to others I'm Jo, the artists' muse with a splendid coiffure of red hair. I'm Joanna Hiffernan, the mistress linked to Whistler.
In this house, I submit to Whistler's whims and model for him, posed and clothed as he wishes. I, who refused to contemplate marriage, portray innocence and virtue, but by choice became an unmarried, kept woman. I'm assured it's not that different; men still grow tired of you, but as mistress muse I can inspire other painters. As I confront my image in the mirror, I think of my developing friendship with Gustave Courbet. He views my Irish beauty with more richness, honesty and less dream-like qualities. If I ever modelled for him, I would be depicted as womanly, painted on canvas as a sensuous 'Eve'.
Whistler, I fear, is beginning to tire of me. Sometimes I hear him muttering as he washes his brushes, 'One more, one more... One more painting', followed by a disgruntled sigh as if my embodied perfection annoys him, but his compositions aren't always true to my features. Last time he ignored my sky-blue eyes and darkened them to complement my hair, so I know the image he captures now may not be the real me. The fiery red of my hair will be toned down and my skin will resemble porcelain. The finished figure will look delicate, almost translucent, and people will speculate: What is this angelic girl thinking? Some will see sadness and others a dreamy contentedness. The interpretation of the painting will change with each beholder. Whistler, in his more enthused moments, has explained, as before, all this to me. His perceptiveness of the human mind never ceases to amaze me.
In the still silence, I try to give her, this little white girl, a contemplative air as instructed. With Whistler deep in his work, my mind drifts easily and the vase dissolves into a white and blue blur of memories. I think of my dear mother, God rest her soul, and of my father and sister, and of how I met Whistler just over three years ago at a studio in Rathbone Place. Even now I'm not sure what drew me to him, perhaps it was his American accent, but he whisked me away to spend the summer in France, and come winter I sat for The White Girl No.1. It was while in Paris we befriended Gustave, who eulogised about my red hair and marvellous eyes. Now, we're here, in London, and Gustave is at his resort in Normandy. I inadvertently part my lips and get reprimanded for it, and then I'm told to straighten up as I'm wilting like a god damn flower! Whistler, the artist, is often harsh with me. I suffer for the sake of his art and so I can continue to provoke his family's and society's disapproval, although I resent having to find alternative accommodation when his mother visits!
What is this life I have chosen? A mistress muse whom artists arrange in languid or risqué poses, and then discard when inspiration no longer comes and the woman has faded.