Whistler's Woman in White on display at the National Gallery of Art A dreamy woman in white painted by James McNeill Whistler is the center of a new show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Whistler's Mother, meet Whistler's very, very close friend at the National Gallery

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An early painting by American artist James McNeill Whistler is the focus of an exhibition at Washington's National Gallery. But as NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports, the show does not feature Whistler's most famous work.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I've known his mother for years. So do you, if you've ever had an art class or seen a book of art classics - old lady in profile, wearing a really black dress, white lace cuffs, white bonnet, sitting by a gray wall, kind of mean looking, judgmental. This exhibition, "The Woman In White: Joanna Hiffernan And James McNeill Whistler," is about his relationship with a much younger woman. Joanna was his model, muse and more. Did Muse and Mom know each other?

MARGARET MACDONALD: Oh, yes.

STAMBERG: Curator Margaret MacDonald unearthed new information and says it seems Mama didn't think much of Joanna.

MACDONALD: The danger to a model of possibly being seduced made her not respectable.

STAMBERG: Were they lovers?

MACDONALD: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely (laughter).

STAMBERG: Joanna Hiffernan, with good reason, may not have been too crazy about Anna McNeill Whistler, the mother. James and Joanna were living together.

MACDONALD: Until mother came and he had to move out.

STAMBERG: Still, model and artist continued their relationship for decades. Joanna ran his studio, kept track of the books, raised a son he had with another woman. Curator MacDonald says letters and diaries show Joanna to have been great company.

MACDONALD: She was passionate, had a quick temper, quite funny. She was jolly.

STAMBERG: Whistler painted and sketched and etched her again and again. The National Gallery exhibits three paintings of Joanna in white. She's larger than life in Symphony No. 1: The White Girl - long red hair. X-rays show Whistler fooled around with the length. Longer was his final decision. Long white dress - lots of laundresses in 1861 - she's standing dreamily on a polar bear rug - stylish then in middle class homes. In No. 2, she's still dreamy, still wearing white - proper lady with a nice mantelpiece. She's got company in Symphony No. 3 - another lovely woman in white. What's with all those titles? - Symphony No. whatever. Well, the famous painting of Whistler's mother is officially called "Arrangement In Grey And Black." He was exploring variations in those colors - how they sat together, echoed one another - same thing in his symphonies - seeing that white wasn't just white, mixing several colors into it.

MACDONALD: So it has a warmth in it. It's not cold white.

STAMBERG: Painters like working with white - nice texture, fun to use.

MACDONALD: Whistler got a big brush, got enough paint on and slams it down like a mosaic of colors - feels good. If you're an artist, you enjoy that.

STAMBERG: So do art lovers, although Joanna Hiffernan wrote a friend about some 19th-century reactions to Whistler's Symphony No. 1, the centerpiece of the National Gallery's exhibition.

MACDONALD: (Reading) The White Girl has made a great sensation for and against. Some stupid painters don't understand it at all. The old duffers may refuse it altogether.

STAMBERG: And they did.

MACDONALD: They did.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: For a while, anyway - in Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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