WORCESTER — This adorable picture of a fluffy white kitten in the arms of a comely, blurry-eyed young woman who seems to want you to come back to bed, was painted by Gustave Courbet, the father of 19th-century Realism, in 1864.
That was two years after Courbet’s one-time protégé, James Whistler, painted “Symphony in White,” a celebrated work otherwise known as “The White Girl.” And it was a year before Edouard Manet, Whistler’s friend and Courbet’s sometime rival, painted “The Reading,” a study of his wife, Suzanne, in a white dress on a white sofa against white, transparent curtains.
You sense a bit of competition? I do.
So what was the fascination with white paint in mid-19th-century France? White is hard to handle for figurative painters. It’s good for highlights, obviously; but it’s hard to get it to convey depth, texture, and modeling. You need darker hues, or color, for that.
But some artists, by the middle of the century, seemed to want to brighten things up. Having once been under Courbet’s spell, Whistler was, by the 1860s, turning away from the Frenchman’s combatively down-at-heel, dun-colored style. As if in reaction, he was gradually cultivating an art of rarefied delicacy, a kind of Japanese-inspired aesthetic hypersensitivity.
“Symphony in White” — a portrait of his mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, standing on a bearskin rug — was an early, tentative move in this direction. In his own eyes, the portrait was still very much a “Realist” painting in the Courbet mould. And indeed, moral conventions of the time caused it to be seen as the portrait of a “fallen woman,” with the result that it fell afoul of both the Royal Academy in London and the Salon in Paris. It was eventually exhibited, with Manet’s infamous “Le Dejeuneur sur l’Herbe” (“Luncheon on the Grass”), at the Salon de Refuses — the rejects — in 1863.
And yet for all that, Courbet (1819-77) didn’t see “Symphony in White” as continuing his Realist program at all. He detested the picture. He called it “an apparition” — quite an insult for such an avowed literalist.
In this, he echoed the critic Paul Mantz, who was the first to dub it a “symphony in white.” Mantz and others wrote gushingly of Hiffernan’s “great eyes swimming in ecstasy” and “her languid pose,” suggesting that Whistler’s painting was “the portrait of a spirit, a medium” and “a vision.”
What’s that sound? I do believe it’s Courbet’s kitten growling.
Whistler took all this and ran with it — as far away from Courbet as possible. Against Courbet’s trenchant politics (he was a committed socialist), Whistler came to epitomize the bohemian creed of “art for art’s sake.” “Art,” he said, “should be independent of all claptrap.”
Unfortunately, as he ran, Whistler couldn’t take Hiffernan — a charming, quick-witted beauty who knew a great deal about painting — with him. She ran right into the arms of Courbet.
Courbet’s definition of “realism,” it turns out, was surprisingly capacious: He loved to paint plump-breasted giantesses emerging from the sea, and long-legged lesbians languidly making love.
Hiffernan was the model for one of those lesbians, and for other racy pictures by Courbet that in the 1860s saw him competing with (and for the most part, losing to) Manet’s paintings of his own favorite model, Victorine Meurent.
Courbet painted “Woman With a Cat” in the middle of all this. If he was saying to Whistler, “Look, I can do extraordinary things with white too: a lacy cap, a kitten’s fur, a flimsy nightdress — no problem,” he was also saying: “If you are going to paint a ‘fallen woman,’ don’t do it by winking and nudging, much less by painting ‘symphonies.’ Do it honestly. Paint her with bedroom eyes, with her gown slipping of her shoulders, and with a bit of zest, a bit of life. Go on!”
Whistler heard. But he turned the other way.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.