“Art is a lie that makes us realize a truth.” Pablo Picasso said that once. Maybe twice, who knows. Anyway, sounds fucking insightful as shit.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (what a deliciously pretentious set of middle names) was a mid-to-late nineteenth century expatriate artist who found out a legitimately inconvenient truth through his BFF Gustave Courbet’s painting. Why, you ask, is the story of a boring stupid painting being told on For Shame, the interweb’s most salacious and sexified historical blog? WELL I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED.
I’ll show you the painting in roughly five paragraphs, but for now let’s just say that it makes Dejeneur sur l’herbe look like La lecture, am I right? (LOLz nothing’s funnier than getting a useless degree in art history.)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (should I call him by his full Christian name for the rest of the post?) had a relatively scandalous career. You probably know him from this painting of a bitchin’ girl’s night in:
But during his career, he was just as well known for his innovation in technique and style. See, he didn’t call his works “paintings” (soo pedestrian) but rather “nocturnes,” “arrangements,” or “harmonies” (much more challenging). And one of them, Nocturne in Black and Gold, or The Falling Rocket sparked a high-profile sassfest between Whistler and John Ruskin, a badass art and architecture critic (he was sort of a douche during the trial but I’ve got a little boner for his criticisms if I’m being honest). Also, not to steal LHB’s early-twentieth century thunder, but Whistler was sort of a huge hipster. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but told people he was born in St. Petersburg because it was more exotic, saying “I shall be born where and when I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” He dyed white streaks in his hair. He had a huge circle of intellectual pals, including Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Manet, Monet, and Courbet, and they gave themselves a name – the Aestheticists. And then he was sort of an asshole to all of those friends. Wilde actually based Basil Hallward, the artist who is murdered in The Picture of Dorian Gray on Whistler, so…ouch. But then Whistler publicly called out Wilde for his homosexuality. You guys!
What I’m getting at in a very roundabout way is that Whistler was a popular and controversial man, and underneath/on top of every controversial man is an equally controversial woman.
In Whistler’s case, that woman was Joanna Hiffernan. She was an Irish model working in Paris, getting painted by all kinds of horny artists. But Joanna was a classy bitch. And she was hot. I mean A LOT of men saw her naked for hours and hours at a time, yet in that swirling cesspool of intellectual lust, she was only romantically linked to two artists. Her most lasting relationship was with our dear friend James. Mr. Hiffernan, Joanna’s father, even went so far as to refer to Whistler as “me dear son-in-law,” so you know shit was getting real.
They met in London, and shortly after she modeled for his painting Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl (yeah, the painting titles don’t get any less ridiculous) which won Whistler a lot of critical acclaim. I’m not ignoring the fact that it’s called The White Girl. I could make a race joke here, but I won’t. I’m better than that. You deserve better than that. So instead I’ll talk about Joanna’s snatch.
Like I said, Jo was making bank as an artist’s model. Everyone wanted to paint her, and a lot of people did, including Gustave Courbet, one of Whistler’s best hipster friends and a great Realist painter in his own right. He was known for depicting gritty, quotidian scenes, and more relevant for us, realistic nudes. And boy, did shit get real when Hiffernan posed for Courbet in 1866.
Now would be the time to get any children or immature young men away from the screen. Because this is ART, dammit. It’s not a joke.
HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA just kidding that’s a vagina HAHAHAHAHHA.
Specifically, it’s Joanna Hiffernan’s vagina. A vagina that separated two friends forever.
Basically, a crazy Turkish collector of erotic paintings had just moved to gay Paris and wanted to flesh out his collection (GET IT?!), so he commissioned the work. Courbet wanted to take realism to its limits and paint something that was so real that illicited (GET IT?!) feelings of shame and disgust and shock and blah blah blah he did that by painting a huge vajayjay.
Problem was that this particular vajayjay was attached to his best friend Whistler’s main slampiece
and lover, Joanna. And young James was decidedly pissed that a) his girl’s box was on full display in some creepy Turkish man’s home and b) Courbet stared at said box for hours and hours while he was painting it.
Whenever I think about this story, I just imagine a conversation over dinner between Jo and James:
JAMW: Hey babigurl, how was your day? How’s my bro Gustave?
JH: Omigod Jim he’s so sweeeeet, he’s like almost finished with the painting which is awesome and he never says anything weird or creepy or whatever which is so great because he’s like super close to my vagina and he has to look at it a lot and like I don’t know some people might be weird about that but Gus is so sweet and so nice!
JAMW: Haha I thought you said vagina. Yeah no the guy’s a fucking great dude.
JH: Hahaha I did say vagina.
So given this short imagined dialogue and Whistler’s sassy, hipsterish tendencies, L’Origine du monde came out and fucked shit up big time between Whistler and Courbet. And hey, remember when I said that Jo was only romantically linked to two painters? Guess who the other one was. Yup, Ol’ Gus got his bone on too. So Whistler was sort of feeling a little duped, and shortly after the painting was finished, they had a nasty, public (or pubic) falling out and never spoke again. And Whistler’s relationship with Joanna also fizzled. Don’t feel too bad for him, though, because he banged a lot of other models over the course of his career.
My favorite thing about this story is that a lot of contemporary critics and collectors disputed who the model for the painting actually was because Joanna had red hair (like a true Irish bitch) and the pubic hair in the painting is dark. Really. I just picture a bunch of artsy French grandpas smoking pipes and eating macaroons, standing in front of a painting of a vagina and arguing about who it could be based on hair color. Hilarious.
And that vagina painting has really stuck around. It’s still provocative as shit. Get ready for some timeline fun:
1866 – Finished and displayed and caused uproar and whatnot.
1889 – It was found in an antique store by a French art critic after the Turkish guy’s death. It was hidden behind a lame painting of a castle and trees and shit, inside the same frame.
1966 – Marcel Duchamp based his last work, this little number on it. I’ve seen it in person. My mom didn’t get it. “Why is there a door? Why is the viewfinder so small? Stupid.” And she went to art school.
1994 – Some French author wrote a novel that reproduced the painting on the cover, and police all over Europe demanded that bookstores remove it from their windows.
1995 – L’Origine du monde made it to its current home, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It’s the second most popular painting there, after this one by Renoir. I think we can all agree that while the Renoir is nice, it’s no vagina painting.
2009 – A Portuguese writer similarly put that vagina on her book’s cover, and because pornography is a felony in Portugal, things didn’t go so well for her.
2011 – An artist in Copenhagen made the painting his profile picture (establishing himself as an inspiration to bros everywhere) and Facebook censored it! In 2011! As in this year. As if we needed another reason to hate Mark Zuckerberg.
And now we come to the moral section of the post. If you’re a lady, you don’t let a sweaty Frenchman get too close to your vagina. If you’re that lady’s main squeeze, you don’t let your lady and your sweaty French friend talk to or look at each other, ever. If you’re a sweaty Frenchman, you fucking find a way to paint that snatch and not only do you get some, you’re famous forever.