A woman with a long wavy hair is looking in the mirror, holding the mirror in her left hand and touching hair with her right hand. Her face is pale and cheeks flushed. She seems a bit tired or lost in her thoughts. Who is this girl? Why did the painter draw her looking in the mirror?
This was French realist painter Gustave Courbet’s favorite portrait. The woman depicted in the painting is an Irish girl called Joanna Hiffernan, or Jo, who was a lover and model of his fellow painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The woman from a poor immigrant family was also a painter, but her main source of income was modeling. As models were synonymous with prostitutes at the time, she was not accepted by Whistler’s family. However, he still deeply trusted her and even asked her to manage the copyrights of his paintings.
Courbet drew this portrait when he was in Normandy with the couple. Courbet was 47, Whistler 32 and Hiffernan 23, but they built trust and formed a great friendship despite the age difference. It seems that Courbet was fascinated by her and her long glossy red hair. He painted three repetitions and used her nickname “Jo” instead of her last name for the title, which was uncommon. In addition, he drew these for himself and never sold them to anyone.
Looking in the mirror is an act of staring at oneself. Did he want her to realize how beautiful she was by looking in the mirror? Or did he want her to know that how lovingly he looked at trivial moments of her life? It remains unknown what happened among them in Normandy, but Hiffernan went to Paris in the following year and modelled for Courbet’s controversial nude. Whistler and Hiffernan broke up as if to prove a friendship can last but love cannot.