The nineteenth-century imagination, both pictorially and textually, played host to the spectre of a tendency toward passages of blankness. The Mallarméan word ptyx, proposed to exist in a condition of meaninglessness, Flaubert’s project of a book about nothing, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s musically titled series of paintings about a single colour all testify to this nineteenth-century artistic-literary tendency toward the blank space. If all this blankness has to do with a fear of emptiness, it provides an interesting counterpoint to the manic clutter of Victorian interior decoration, the kind of horror vacui seen in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience.1
Denys Riout suggests a dread of impending artistic apocalypse which goes some way to explain the abundance of voids: “The 19th Century is haunted by the idea of the sudden collapse […] of art. Values were in turmoil. Democracy had shaken the old criteria and the crisis was leading art to disaster. One way to pin-point this debacle was to show painting void of content, painting more empty of images than full of color.”2
The “democracy” to which Riout refers was founded on colonialism and, for much of Europe, the nineteenth century was a period of Imperialist swagger. Perhaps the threat that so troubled the Empire was less about the death of art, and more about the imminent collapse of the system of patriarchal, phallic, and logocentric power. The threat is the awakening of a knowledge that must remain hidden in order for the system to perpetuate its power. This knowledge is simply that colonial rule is a trick, doomed ultimately to disempowerment by unmasking.
In this reading we may perceive in Whistler’s 1862 Symphony in White No. 1 a level of nostalgia. The decorative quality of the surface attests to the influence of Japanese art upon Whistler’s painterly practice. At the same time, however, it passively inscribes the dominance of western painterly traditions over non-western ones. The nostalgia is thus for the structure of Empire that allows for unproblematic appropriation of “exotic” cultures.3
Whistler’s paintings could not, of course, be described as void of content in terms of surface organization. In terms of subject matter however, the work might be a study of the concept “void.” The relentless whiteness of the painting, the blank, expressionless face of the young model, and the fact that it didn’t really seem to be about anything caused great confusion for contemporary spectators.
Whistler himself seemed keen to shut down the theorizing. “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain,” he wrote in 1862.4 Rather than assuaging curiosity, this sentiment seemed to further fan its flames.
The White Girl was rejected from the Royal Academy exhibition in 1862. The following year saw its rejection from the Paris Salon as well. It was finally exhibited in the notorious Salon des Refusés in 1863 to immediate notoriety. Was this a painting about sexual purity? A deflowered bride? What on earth was going on in the surface? A famously outraged Ruskin accused Whistler of “charging two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler charged Ruskin with libel, the ensuing court case involving some of the major players in the Victorian art world.
Sean Cubitt interprets the blankness in Whistler as reflective of a societal emptiness: “In the emptiness of its signification, there hung robed in indefinite sensuality a returned image of the vacuum at the heart of the society of the spectacle.”5 This supports the notion of nineteenth-century Europe’s prescient mourning for the loss of its colonial power. The girl’s “exotic” setting reveals patriarchy’s requirement of a contrasting sensual, decorative Other to highlight the purity of this iteration of white femininity. However perhaps the Other—in this case, western society’s construction of the “Orient”—is in fact asserting its agency by specular sleight of hand. It tricks the white west into believing the myth of its own superiority, whilst at the same time acting as a sort of dark mirror. This mirror presents occidental whiteness with an unpalatable reflection—that of the blankness at the core of a system that classifies, categorizes, and assigns value according to highly simplified definitions of “race,” “gender,” and sexual behavior.
I want to suggest another, related interpretation of Whistler’s White Girl as a study in the development of an aesthetic of whiteness, white femininity in particular. The overriding, relentless whiteness of this piece—the chaste folds of dripping cloth, the drapes and spots of light, the whiteness of her skin—all conspire to suggest an interpretation of whiteness where the varieties of white signify varieties of goodness, beauty, desirability. The abundance of versions of white found here, and the devotion to their exploration, all appear to equate whiteness the color (or non-color) and whiteness the concept with associations of intrinsic value. This is white femininity as consummate sexual ideal.
The notion of whiteness and “purity” is present in this image too, though in terms of the simplistic “either/or” binary so embedded in western logocentric thinking, this purity is troubled. The white girl’s facial features are big, luscious, gleaming. Her burnished hair is abundant and falls loosely and freely about her shoulders and face. We know that the model was Whistler’s mistress, the charismatic beauty Joanna Hiffernan. Even if we didn’t know this, a palpable sexual feeling permeates the surface. It isn’t locatable directly in any one compositional element (the furry animal skin rug, the white bloom, the blood-flushed lips). It’s more of a sensation, or ghostly presence.
Whistler’s white girl may be read as an ideal of white feminine purity, but she seems as desiring as she is desirable.
If the presence of desire confers agency of some kind, this might suggest an empowering reading of Whistler’s White Girl as the depiction of a white woman as something other than the property of white masculinity. So far so good, until we remember that the depiction is of Whistler’s mistress—a precarious role with no guarantees or benefits beyond the present moment interaction. The mistress’ position in her relationship is usually a subaltern one, dependent on the whim and will of the man. This complicates both the whiteness and the femininity of the subject. She is at once fetishized, lauded and disempowered by her relation to white masculinity, a relation which also goes some way to shape and define that masculinity. As Raka Shome observes, “White femininity, because of its discursive, relational and spatial proximity to the structures of white patriarchy and its role in their reproduction, functions as a site through which racialized patriarchal relations are organized—through mothers, wives, daughters, sisters.”6
In White: Essays on Race and Culture Richard Dyer points out that “…the moral and aesthetic resonance of whiteness can and often has been mobilized in relation to white-skinned people.”7 If applied to Whistler’s girl, Dyer’s reading of whiteness creates a double-blank. If the girl is a sexual “tabula rasa” and has yet to be claimed by a man, she also has yet to be brought into being. If Whistler’s painting is conceptually “blank,” the girl’s unattainable white beauty can be said to be similarly blank, since “the conceptualization of white beauty and white virtue emphasises absence.”8 The nineteenth-century sense of impending loss of colonial power could then be read homologously to the sense of impending loss of virginity implied in Whistler’s surface. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why the painting provoked such intense and heated reactions.
In this reading, white patriarchy seems to be inscribing this white girl with the attributes it most wishes her to have. She is a blank white space with a blank expression, ready to receive whatever inscription most benefits the spectator.
I want to find her some individuality, some power, some agency of her own. And yet I am aware that in so doing, I too succumb to the desire to inscribe a blank space with my preferred meaning.
The white lily that the girl holds has often been read as a symbol of virginity or sexual innocence, the wolfskin rug on which she stands a symbol of the wild, bestial forces of sexuality. Perhaps the girl is taming these forces with the innate purity that white femininity confers in a patriarchal context. Perhaps, however, we can read the wolfskin rug as another iteration of the historic representation of black male sexuality as bestial in the white western imagination.
The association of black people with animals has a long history in western popular culture. Examples abound, from King Kong where the beast literally abducts the helpless, screaming white woman, to Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo, which on publication in 1899 was hailed as one of the few children’s books with a black protagonist.
Whilst the system of white racialized patriarchy demands that its foundational binaries be kept intact, their actual meanings are not always clear. The construct of the animalistic and rapacious black male, for example, suggests a man with at least some agency. In reality, as Kobena Mercer discusses, the black man’s position was a highly complex one—a castrated masculinity where the phallus, in the Lacanian sense, would always be out of reach: “Whereas prevailing definitions of masculinity imply power, control and authority, these aspects have been historically denied to black men since slavery […] Shaped by this history, black masculinity is a highly contradictory formation of identity, as it is a subordinated masculinity.”9
Whistler’s white girl’s femininity is also subordinated. She is “kept,” dependent on her appeal to the sexual desire of the white patriarch. However, if we read the wolfskin rug on which she stands as a metaphor for the wild sexual advances of the bestial black man, crazed with desire to sexually possess the prized white woman (whom white men must work tirelessly to protect, like a team of firefighters), then a strange power occupies her stillness.
Does her stance on the animal skin show a peaceful conquering born from the knowledge of an innate superiority which drives out all fear? For as much as the system of patriarchy subordinates the white woman, the black man is always further subordinated. Or perhaps her glistening eyes, voluptuous red mouth and tousled hair suggest that her position on top of the animal skin betrays a secret desire for the sexual advances of black masculinity. There is agency here for the white girl when we entertain the possibility that in desiring the black man, that brute personification of feral id energy in the white racialized imagination, she is rejecting the notion that her value as a white woman is dependent on her virginity and sexual purity. White patriarchal masculinity is thus presented with a concept that fills it with psychic horror—the possibility that the white woman might actually be desirous of such an encounter.10
In this reading, Whistler’s white girl has an unexpectedly subversive role to play. If desire for the feared and despised black male body originates from the body of the prized and elevated white woman, the system’s very exchange value is confused. In the possibility of her illicit desire, Whistler’s white girl takes the exchange value of racialized patriarchy and renders it nonsense. She blanks it.
- William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 30 x 22 in., London, Tate Britain.
- Catherine Millet, “Denys Riout: Histoire du Monochrome, du Comique au Sérieux et Retour/The History of the Monochrome, from Humor to High Art and Back Again,” Art Press, no. 211 (1996): 19-25.
- Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).
- Robin Spencer, “Whistler’s ‘The White Girl’: Painting, Poetry and Meaning.” The Burlington Magazine 140, no. 1142 (1998): 300-11.
- Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (London: Sage Publications, 1998).
- Raka Shome, “White Femininity and the Discourse of the Nation: Re/Membering Princess Diana.” Feminist Media Studies 1, no. 3 (2001), TandFonline.
- Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Theory and Culture (London: Routledge, 1997), 70.
- Dyer, White: Essays on Theory and Culture, 45.
- Kobena Mercer, “Black Masculinity and the Sexual Politics of Race.” Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 142-143.
- Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995).