Hiffernan was a Roman Catholic. Her father, Patrick Hiffernan, is described by Whistler's friends, Joseph Pennell and his wife Elizabeth, as being like "Captain Costigan," the drunken Irishman in Thackeray's novel Pendennis. The Pennells also described him as "a teacher of polite chirography (calligraphy)" who used to speak of Whistler as "me son-in-law." Her mother, Katherine Hiffernan, died in 1862, aged 44. Joanna Hiffernan had a sister called Bridget Agnes Hiffernan, later Singleton. The artist Walter Greaves, who began tuition with Whistler in 1863, and who knew Hiffernan well, claimed that she had a son called Harry but no trace of him can be found in official records.
Whistler first met Hiffernan in 1860 while she was at a studio in Rathbone Place, and she went on to have a 6-year relationship with him, during which period she modelled for some of his most famous paintings. Physically striking, Hiffernan's personality was even more impressive. Whistler's biographers and friends, the Pennells, wrote of her,
"She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without."
Whistler's family did not approve of Hiffernan, as unmarried artists' models, and especially those who posed nude, were considered at that time to be little better than prostitutes. However, Hiffernan seems only to have modelled for friends, so perhaps the objections to her made by Whistler's family were based more on social class than on Hifferman's personal character. When Whistler's mother visited from America in 1864, alternative accommodation had to be found for Hiffernan, who also seems to have been the cause of Whistler's quarrel with Alphonse Legros in 1863.
She was in France with Whistler during the summer of 1861, and while in Paris during the winter of 1861–62 she sat for Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl at a studio in Boulevard des Batignolles and in 1864–65 she posed for Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl. It is possible that this is when she met Whistler's friend and fellow artist, Gustave Courbet, for whom she later modelled. There is some thought -recently confirmed by experts who found another part of the picture showing the woman's head- that she was the model for Courbet's L'Origine du monde, which depicts a nude woman's vulva.
Hiffernan attended séances with Whistler at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house in Chelsea in 1863, and spent the summer and autumn of 1865 in Trouville with Whistler. In 1866, Whistler gave Hiffernan power of attorney over his affairs while he was in Valparaiso for seven months, making provision for household expenses and giving her the authority to act as an agent in the sale of his works.
During Whistler's absence, Hiffernan travelled to Paris and posed for Courbet in The Sleepers, or Le Sommeil which depicts two naked women in bed asleep. It is likely that she had an affair with Courbet at this time, After the end of his relationship with Hiffernan, Whistler left a will in her favour.
In addition to being an artists' model, Hiffernan herself also drew and painted.
After she and Whistler parted, Hiffernan helped to raise Whistler's son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870–1935), the result of an affair with a parlour maid, Louisa Fanny Hanson. He lived with Hiffernan at 5 Thistle Grove as late as 1880 when Whistler was away in Venice with Maud Franklin, his then mistress. The 1881 English census recorded Hiffernan, her sister Bridget and Charles Hanson as visitors of Charles Singleton (whom Bridget would later marry) at 2 Thistle Grove.
Little is known of Hiffernan after 1880. A woman reported to Juliette Courbet (1831–1915), the sister of Gustave Courbet, in a letter of 18 December 1882, that "the beautiful Irish girl" was in Nice, where she sold antiques and some pictures by Courbet. It is believed that Hiffernan married a man named Abbot some time after 1881, possibly on the Continent.
The art collector Charles Lang Freer met Hiffernan when he was a pallbearer at Whistler's funeral in 1903 when she came forward in heavy mourning to pay her last respects. His fellow art patron Louisine Havemeyer (1855–1929) later recorded the incident as she heard it from Freer:
"As she raised her veil and I saw ... the thick wavy hair, although it was streaked with grey, I knew at once it was Johanna, the Johanna of Etretat, 'la belle Irlandaise' that Courbet had painted with her wonderful hair and a mirror in her hand.... She stood for a long time beside the coffin—nearly an hour I should think.... I could not help being touched by the feeling she showed toward her old friend. "Did Maud [Franklin] come?" [Havemeyer] asked. "Yes" answered Mr. Freer, "the same afternoon. She had come all the way from Paris and was very much affected as I uncovered Whistler's face for her to see him." ... [One could see, Freer mused] "that the real drama of [Whistler's] life was bound up in the love of [these] devoted women."
- Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Pennell, Joseph: The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, 1908, London and Philadelphia, Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott company ; London : W. Heinemann (English)
- Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Pennell, Joseph: The Whistler Journal, 1921, Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company (English)
- Du Maurier, Daphne (Ed.): The Young George du Maurier: A Selection of his Letters, 1860–67, Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1952 (English)
- Ionides, Luke: Memories, 1925, Paris (English)
- Lechien, Isabelle Enaud: James Whistler, le peintre et le polémiste 1834–1903, Paris, ACR Édition, 1995 ISBN 2-86770-087-6 (French)
- Teyssèdre, Bernard: Le roman de l’origine, Paris, Gallimard, 1996 ISBN 978-2-07-078411-0 (French)
- Guégan, Stéphane & Haddad, Michèle: L'ABCdaire de Courbet et le realisme, Paris, Flammarion, 1996 ISBN 978-2-08-012468-5 (French)
- Orban, Christine: J’étais l’origine du monde, Paris, Albin Michel, 2000 ISBN 978-2-226-11669-7 (French)
- MacDonald, Margaret F. et al.: Whistler, Women and Fashion, 2003, New Haven and London, Yale University Press ISBN 978-0-300-09906-5 (English)
- Savatier, Thierry: L'Origine du monde, histoire d'un tableau de Gustave Courbet, Paris, Bartillat, 2006 ISBN 2-84100-377-9 (French)
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
- Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, (1908)
- Short biography of Walter Greaves
- Ionides, Luke, 'Memories', Paris, 1925
- Elizabeth Robins and Joseph Pennell, The Whistler Journal (Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1921), p. 121.
- The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality, and Art by Alison Smith Published by Manchester University Press, 1996 ISBN 0-7190-4403-0 pg 29
-  'The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler' University of Glasgow Whistler Archive
- Transcript of the 'Power of Attorney' document – The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler – University of Glasgow
- Patricia de Montfort, "White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s," in Whistler, Women, and Fashion (Frick Collection, New York, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003), p. 79.
- 1881 Census of England, Public Records Office
- 'Pretty women: Charles Lang Freer and the ideal of feminine beauty'.'Magazine Antiques' November 2006 by Susan A. Hobbs
- Louisine W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector (1961; reprint Ursus Press, New York, 1993), pp. 212–213.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Joanna_Hiffernan.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Joanna_Hiffernan.|
- Hiffernan's Biography
- Short Biography on 'Mr Whistler's Art' website
- Letter from Whistler regarding Hiffernan