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James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)  Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl   Oil on canvas, 1862  215 cm × 108 cm (84.5 in × 42.5 in)  he National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA
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Title: Symphony in White, No. 1
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl 
Oil on canvas, 1862
215 cm × 108 cm (84.5 in × 42.5 in)
he National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

Symphony in White, No. 1, also known as The White Girl, is a painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The work shows a woman in full figure standing on a bear rug in front of a white curtain with a lily in her hand. The colour scheme of the painting is almost entirely white. The model is Joanna Heffernan, the artist's mistress. Though the painting was originally called The White Girl, Whistler later started calling it Symphony in White, No. 1. By referring to his work in such abstract terms, he intended to emphasise his "art for art's sake" philosophy.

Whistler created the painting in the winter of 1861–62, though he later returned to it and made ations. It was rejected both at the Royal Academy and at the Salon in Paris, but eventually accepted at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. This exhibition also featured Édouard Manet's famous Déjeuner sur l'herbe, and together the two works gained a lot of attention. The White Girl shows clearly the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with whom Whistler had recently come in contact. The painting has been interpreted by later art critics both as an allegory of innocence and its loss, and as a religious allusion to the Virgin Mary.

The artist and his model
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in the United States in 1834, the son of George Washington Whistler, a railway engineer. In 1843, his father relocated the family to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where James received training in painting. After a stay in England, he returned to America to attend the US Military Academy at West Point in 1851.In 1855 he made his way back to Europe, determined to dedicate himself to painting. Here he settled in Paris at first, but in 1859 moved to London, where he would spend most of the remainder of his life. In London he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who would have a profound influence on Whistler.

It was also in London that Whistler met Joanna Heffernan, the model who would become his lover. Their relationship has been referred to as a "marriage without benefit of clergy." By 1861, Whistler had already used her as a model for another painting. Wapping, named after Wapping in London where Whistler lived, was begun in 1860, though not finished until 1864. It shows a woman and two men on a balcony overlooking the river. According to Whistler himself, the woman – portrayed by Heffernan – was a prostitute. Heffernan supposedly had a strong influence over Whistler; his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden refused a dinner invitation in the winter of 1863–64 due to her dominant presence in the household.

Creation and reception
Whistler started working on The White Girl shortly after 3 December 1861, with the intention of submitting it to the Royal Academy. In spite of bouts of illness, he had finished the painting by April. In a letter to George du Maurier in early 1862, he described it as:
...a woman in a beautiful white cambric dress, standing against a window which filters the light through a transparent white muslin curtain – but the figure receives a strong light from the right and therefore the picture, barring the red hair, is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white.

Whistler submitted the painting to the Academy, but according to Heffernan, he expected it to be rejected at this point. The previous year, in 1862, another painting had caused a minor scandal. Edwin Henry Landseer's The Shrew Tamed showed a horse with a woman resting on the ground nearby. Only later did it become clear that the model was the notorious London courtesan Catherine Ws. Whistler's painting was reminiscent enough of Landseer's that the judges were wary of admitting it. White Girl was submitted to the Academy along with three etchings, all three of which were accepted, while the painting was not. When the painting was rejected, Whistler exhibited it at the small Berners Street Gallery in London instead. The next year, Whistler tried to have the painting exhibited at the Salon in Paris, but also here it was rejected. Instead it was accepted at the native Salon des Refusés – the "exhibition of rejects" that opened on 15 May, two weeks after the official Salon.

The 1863 Salon des Refusés was the same exhibition where Édouard Manet's famous Déjeuner sur l'herbe made a scandal, yet the attention given to Whistler's White Girl was even greater. The controversy surrounding the paintings was described in Émile Zola's novel L'Œuvre (1886). The reception Whistler's painting received was mostly favourable, however, and largely vindicated him after the rejection he had experienced both in London and in Paris. Among those who greatly admired it, were his colleagues and friends Manet, the painter Gustave Courbet and the poet Charles Baudelaire. The art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger saw it in the tradition of Goya and Velázquez. There were, however, those who were less favourable; certain French critics saw the English Pre-Raphaelite trend as somewhat eccentric.

Composition and interpretation
Whistler, especially in his later career, resented the idea that his paintings should have any meaning beyond what could be seen on the canvas. He is known as a central proponent of the "art for art's sake" philosophy. Of The White Girl he said: "My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain." This comment came in response to a widely held conception that the painting represented the protagonist in Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White, published serially 1859–60. Collins book was a tale of romance, intrigue and double identity, and was considered a bit of a sensation at the time of its publication. Because English critics saw the painting as an illustration, they tended to be less favourable than their French colleagues, who saw it as a visionary, poetic fantasy. One English critic, referring to Collins' novel, called The White Girl "...one of the most incomplete paintings we ever met with." Whistler, who had never even read the novel, resented the comparison. About ten years later, he began referring to the painting as Symphony in White, No. 1. By the musical analogy, he further emphasised his philosophy that the composition was the central thing, not the subject matter. The title was probably also inspired by Théophile Gautier's 1852 poem Symphonie en Blanc Majeur.
Whistler was not entirely content with the realism the painting displayed in its original form, a trait he blamed on the influence Courbet had on him at the time. Later, between 1867 and 1872, he reworked it to give it a more spiritual expression. Even though Symphony was begun before Whistler first met Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite influence is still clear. The painting was an early experiment in white on white, with a woman standing in a white dress in front of a white background. This colour scheme was a subject he would return to later, in two paintings that would be given the titles of Symphony in White, No. 2 (1864) and Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865–67). The panel is long and slender, and the model's pose and the shape of her clothes further emphasise the vertical nature of the painting.The woman is bold, almost confrontational, in her direct gaze at the viewer, and her features are highly individualised. Art critic Hilton Kramer sees in Whistler's portraits a charm and a combination of craft and observational skills that his more radical landscapes lacked.

Though Whistler himself resented attempts to analyse the meaning of his art, this has not deterred later critics from doing so. The 19th-century French art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary saw in the painting symbols of lost innocence, a theme that has been picked up by later critics. Art historian Wayne Craven also sees the painting as more than a formalist exercise, and finds "enigmatic, expressive and even erotic undercurrents" in the image. He points to the contrasts presented by the imagery, with the white lily representing innocence and virginity, and the fierce animal head on the rug symbolising the loss of innocence. Beryl Schlossman, coming from the perspective of literary criticism, sees allusions to the Madonna of religious art in the work. To Schlossman, the rug under the woman's feet is the cloud on which the Virgin is often seen standing, and the bear is the serpent, crushed under her heel.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)  Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl   Oil on canvas, 1862  215 cm × 108 cm (84.5 in × 42.5 in)  he National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA
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