Rather extraordinary that Whistler could have painted Wapping in the early 1860s
and Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket, circa 1875:
The short answer is “Tonalism.” This article on the site of the Montclair Art Museum enlarges on certain of this art movement’s characteristics:
With its darkish palette, Tonalism countered the high-keyed expression of sunlight and shade in French Impressionism. Tonalism was, in short, one of the swan songs of nineteenth-century American academicism. Yet, paradoxically, it was also assimilated by progressive American Impressionists, and — with its often-ambiguous forms and subjects — even anticipated abstraction.
The understated color in most Tonalist art, or its complete absence, as well as its preternatural evocations, appealed to turn-of-the-century photographers seeking to assert the legitimacy of that medium as a serious art form which could transcend the mere documentation of reality.
More useful definition from The Art Story, especially as it applies to Whistler:
By limiting his color palette and tonal contrast while skewing perspective, Whistler showcased a new compositional approach that emphasized the flat, abstract quality of the painting.
The woman here depicted is Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler’s mistress at the time. She was not quite the shy innocent suggested in this portrait. Whistler’s friends Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell described her thus:
“She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.”
Whistler himself expresses his admiration rather more freely:
“Her name is Jo Hiffernan, an Irish hellcat, skin like milk. Quick-witted for a woman, and a soul as deep as a well.”
(Quick-witted for a woman, was she? It behooves us to remember that not so long ago, it was perfectly acceptable to toss off this sort of observation disguised by the speaker as a clever bon mot.)
This same model was painted by Gustave Courbet circa 1866:
This work inspired the poem “Before the Mirror” by Algernon Swinburne:
WHITE ROSE in red rose-garden
Is not so white;
Snowdrops that plead for pardon
And pine for fright
Because the hard East blows
Over their maiden rows
Grow not as this face grows from pale to bright.
Behind the veil, forbidden,
Shut up from sight,
Love, is there sorrow hidden,
Is there delight?
Is joy thy dower or grief,
White rose of weary leaf,
Late rose whose life is brief, whose loves are light?
Soft snows that hard winds harden
Till each flake bite
Fill all the flowerless garden
Whose flowers took flight
Long since when summer ceased,
And men rose up from feast,
And warm west wind grew east, and warm day night.
“Come snow, come wind or thunder
High up in air,
I watch my face, and wonder
At my bright hair;
Nought else exalts or grieves
The rose at heart, that heaves
With love of her own leaves and lips that pair.
“She knows not loves that kissed her
She knows not where.
Art thou the ghost, my sister,
White sister there,
Am I the ghost, who knows?
My hand, a fallen rose,
Lies snow-white on white snows, and takes no care.
“I cannot see what pleasures
Or what pains were;
What pale new loves and treasures
New years will bear;
What beam will fall, what shower,
What grief or joy for dower;
But one thing knows the flower; the flower is fair.”
Glad, but not flushed with gladness,
Since joys go by;
Sad, but not bent with sadness,
Since sorrows die;
Deep in the gleaming glass
She sees all past things pass,
And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.
There glowing ghosts of flowers
Draw down, draw nigh;
And wings of swift spent hours
Take flight and fly;
She sees by formless gleams,
She hears across cold streams,
Dead mouths of many dreams that sing and sigh.
Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why,
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men’s tears beneath the sky.
There is a kind of magic here, I think.
In my hastily scribbled notes, I’ve written three phrases uttered by our lecturer: “no narrative, no story, no point.” I’m not sure which work she was referring to.
For more on Whistler, see the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, on the Met’s site.