Art: The Remarkable Life of Romaine Brooks

Romain Brooks - Self PortraitRomaine Brooks: Self-Portrait, 1923. via Thought Patterns

Like many, I was first struck by Romaine Brooks through her remarkable 1923 self-portrait, which hangs in the National Gallery (though I’ve only seen it in reproductions). She depicts herself in somewhat androgynous dress, a dark suit and top hat, staring directly at the viewer but with eyes partly shaded. She presents an air of mystery, and of confidence, and of a woman who likely led a singularly fascinating life. And indeed she did. For a project in grad school I was assigned a comparative book review on any American artist or movement, and I immediately chose Romaine Brooks. Reading the three main texts I could find on her- Between Me and Life by Meryle Secrest, Amazons in the Drawing Room by Whitney Chadwick, and Wild Girls by Diana Souhami- I assembled as complete a biography as I could, while of course greedily perusing her wonderful but all-too-small oeuvre.

Remembered primarily for her compelling portraits of fashionable intellectuals living in Paris in the early twentieth century, Romaine Brooks was a fascinating character and an idiosyncratic artist. Though she was little known to new audiences by the time of her death in 1970, since then her work and life have been gradually re-discovered and re-assessed by contemporary scholars- especially in light of feminist and queer theory.

romaine brooks2Romaine Brooks: Dame en Deuil, 1910. via It’s About Time

Romaine BrooksRomaine Brooks: Chasseresse, 1920. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

She was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in 1874 to American heiress Ella Waterman Goddard and Major Harry Goddard, the last of three children. Her parents separated shortly afterward and for much of her childhood she was ferried about Europe by her restless mother. Ella Goddard was herself an eccentric personality: exacting impossible demands on servants, writing demonic poetry, attempting to communicate with spirits, and (by Brooks’s account) emotionally abusing her youngest daughter. Goddard’s only son, St. Mar, was physically and emotionally unstable, experiencing terrifying hallucinations, violent outbursts, and debilitating illnesses. According to Brooks, her mother lavished attention on St. Mar and scorned Romaine (little seems to be documented of her other daughter, Maya), and at one point she even gave the young Romaine up to a poor washerwoman in New York City until she was reclaimed by her grandfather. Brooks claimed to have no happy memories of her childhood, which was a combination of travels with her unpredictable family and stays in strict religious boarding schools, where her sexual attraction to women first manifested itself. She was even forced to stay at an Italian convent for a short time as a teenager.

Emotionally disconnected from her family and fiercely independent, Brooks sought to sever ties with her mother and forge a life of her own when she reached young adulthood. For a time she studied singing in Paris, but soon decided to develop her artistic talent, which had long manifested itself in sketches and caricatures. She achieved a kind of semi-freedom by rejecting Ella Goddard’s influence and plans to make her a society wife, but still relied on her mother’s small monthly stipend for her living. In 1896 she studied art in Rome (where, as the only female student, she was sexually harassed by her classmates) and later took classes at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. She scraped by on her allowance and some painting sales, summering in Capri because of its cheaper cost and supportive community of artists, writers, and homosexuals. Her brother died in 1901 and her mother less than a year after, and suddenly Brooks was an enormously wealthy property owner, inheriting multiple houses and apartments along with a portion of her family’s estate.

Romaine Brooks - Ida RubinsteinRomaine Brooks: La Trajet, 1900. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Ida Rubinstein2Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

Financially independent for the first time in her life, Brooks set about creating prime conditions for fully realizing her artistic talent. In an effort to avoid more sexual harassment and attain an air of social normalcy she married her friend John Brooks, a gay scholar she knew from Capri. To her surprise, despite their chaste relationship he expected her to play the part of a domesticated society wife, and she left him after suffering his controlling impulses for a year. After spending time alone at St. Ives in Britain in 1904, she developed the palette of grays and understated tones that dominate most of her subsequent paintings. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Galeries Durand-Ruel in 1910. For the next several decades, Brooks became a mainstay in a certain Parisian scene of wealthy homosexuals and prominent intellectuals.

Not reliant on selling her work to make a living, she chose whom she wanted to paint and rarely let her sitters take their portraits home, so attached was Brooks to her art. Her portraits of friends and associates reflect the vibrant social circles in which she moved, from famed Russian ballet dancer Ida Rubenstein and concert pianist Renata Borgatti, to French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. After various affairs and romances with other women (and, briefly, D’Annunzio), Brooks met American writer and socialite Natalie Barney in 1915 when she was forty-one years old. They formed an intense and often dramatic bond, remaining each other’s most significant companion until Brooks died. They built a special house that had separate living quarters but adjoining communal space, so Brooks could maintain her independence (she preferred spending time alone) but they could still share a life together.

Romaine Brooks - Peter a Young GirlRomaine Brooks: Peter (A Young English Girl), 1924. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Renata-Borgatti-Au-Piano-1920Romaine Brooks: Renata Borgatti, Au Piano, 1920. via SVLSTG Magazine

Romaine Brooks - Una TroubridgeRomaine Brooks: Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. via Weimar

Moving between France, Italy, and sometimes the United States, Brooks took advantage of her wealth and status, painting at will, experimenting with abstract line drawing, and writing an intimate memoir, No Pleasant Memories, that has remained unpublished. Barney supported her art and writing, using her influence to place some of Brooks’s paintings into prominent museums and galleries. During World War II they lived together in Italy and withstood air raids and shortages. Strangely, they both shared some fascistic views, presumably the result of their privileged upbringing and friendship with Italian nationalist D’Annunzio. As Brooks grew older she became more and more misanthropic, cutting herself off from much of the outside world and even shutting Barney out in the very last years of her life. When she was about 65 she became convinced she was going blind, and her hypochondria increased to the point of paranoia. She painted very little in her final decades, and as many in her once-prominent social circle passed away her artistic relevance seemed to dwindle. She died in Nice in 1970, at the age of 96.

Romaine Brooks was, without question, a fascinating person. She was a painter of great skill and individuality, and her portraits reveal a personal belief in independence and self-realization that she maintained throughout her life. She was also a skilled writer and even a some-time interior decorator (always sticking to black and white decor, of course). She defied convention in many ways, living alone as a young woman in Paris and Capri, studying to be a professional artist in a male-dominated field, living outwardly as a lesbian in a less-than-tolerant society, and, above all, always staying true to her own will. Her personality could be brittle, dismissive, and neurotic, but she shared a great love with Natalie Barney, along with various romantic and platonic relationships with other writers, artists, and intellectuals.

Romaine Brooks Romaine Brooks. via The Red List

Romaine Brooks and Natalie BarneyRomaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, 1936. via Deviates, Inc

Ultimately it is her work itself that leaves the most significant legacy- her paintings are cool and distant, at times slightly humorous and at others sexually charged. She depicts her sitters as lone thinkers, perhaps gazing inward or looking to the past, swathed in delicate subtleties of gray. I find her color palette addictive, and have semi-consciously taken to wearing and drawing in shades of gray more often since immersing myself in her work. At the time her style was unexpected, so contrary to the bright colors of popular movements like Fauvism and Expressionism or the experimental shapes of Cubism and Surrealism, and her androgynous nudes and cross-dressing women were not common subjects. Several of her works reveal a subversion of the gaze, for she paints women’s bodies with both the understanding of them and the desire for them- this is especially clear in her nudes of Ida Rubinstein, her muse and lover in the 1910s. Though their color schemes are subdued, these paintings are generally a celebration of Brooks’s social environment, and an important glimpse into the artistic lesbian community of Paris in the early twentieth century. A lot of her paintings are now in the Smithsonian’s collection, though they don’t tend to keep many on view. I hope to see at least one in real life someday.

Sources:

Whitney Chadwick. Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks. University of California Press, 2000.

Meryle Secrest. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. Doubleday, 1974.

Diana Souhami. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art. The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.

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