May 1, 1874 – Romaine Brooks:
“My rebellion took the form of hating conventional.”
When Romaine Brooks was finally discovered by the art world, she was in her 90s and all but forgotten, even in Paris, where she’d spent much of her life.
For many queer artists, their sexuality had insignificant impact or reflection on their work, but Brooks was a lesbian, and her gayness permeated virtually every aspect of her life and her work. She dressed as a man, she painted portraits of mostly women, many nude. Yet in June 1903, she married her friend John Ellingham Brooks, an unsuccessful pianist who was broke. He was gay. She may have been motivated by concern for him and a desire for companionship, rather than a “Lavender Marriage” (a male-female marriage where one or both partners were homosexual). They began fighting almost as soon as the married when she cut her hair and chose to wear men’s clothes; he refused to be seen in public with her dressed that way. Not wanting any part of his outward propriety, she left him after only a year. He frightened her when he kept making references to “our” money.
Brooks was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard, in Rome, to a wealthy American family. She had a difficult, even tragic childhood. Her father deserted the family when she was four-years-old. She grew up in NYC, abused by her mother, who gave all her attention to her mentally ill son. Eventually, Romaine was put in foster care with a less well-off family. Then her Mother stopped her support payments, causing her foster family to sink into poverty. Even though her maternal grandfather was a millionaire, Romaine refused to contact him for fear of being sent back to her mother. Her foster parents eventually located her grandfather on their own, and she ended up in a boarding school.
After graduation, Romaine received enough of her family money to move to Paris where she found work as singer in a cabaret. Later, she went to Rome to studied art, the only woman in her life drawing class. Not surprisingly, she was a victim of sexual harassment, which ended when she beat the shit out of her tormentor and was expelled from the school. Always short of money, Romaine returned to Paris for more art studies, and went back to singing in cabarets.
In 1901, after the death of her mother and brother, Romaine inherited her grandfather’s considerable estate. Independently wealthy, she was suddenly attractive to all sorts of people. Disposing of the husband, yet for some reason, keeping his name, Brooks rented a studio in the small town of St. Ives on England’s Cornish coast where she gave up her more colorful pallete for shades of gray, influenced by the work of another American expatriate, James McNeill Whistler. Having no need to sell her work, she had no reason to pay attention to the modernist movement of the first decades of the 20th century.
She worked mostly in blacks, whites, and grays, with occasional hints of earth tones such as ocre and umber, all of which caused her to stand out artistically as much as her lifestyle did socially. In Paris, Brooks ignored the world of the avant-garde, her wealth allowing her to hang out with, and paint the upper-class and celebrities of the era, many of whom she took as lovers. She had an exhibition of her work in 1910, and her reputation as a portrait artist grew along with her high society friendships.
She had a three-year affair with Russian actor/dancer Ida Rubenstein, who performed with Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russe. She painted Rubenstein more often than any other model.
Brooks then moved on to Natalie Clifford Barney. They built a house with two separate wings joined by a dining room to accommodate their need to be together, yet separate. Though frequently apart, their “arrangement” lasted more than 50 years. Brook’s list of paintings from this period might also be used as her list of lovers as well. Her short hair and masculine attire became fashionable in Paris, as seen in many of Brook’s portraits at the time, including her own.
In her 30s and 40s, her whole social life in Paris and London was immersed in the emerging lesbian culture. Her works reflect that: These women were trying to find a way to identify themselves within a community, and her paintings portray that.
From 1920 to 1924, most of Brooks’ subjects were women who were in Barney’s social circle or who visited her salon. Truman Capote visited Brooks’ studio in the late 1940s, and he called it:
“…the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts. “
After 1925, Brooks stopped painting self-portraits. In fact, she quit painting almost entirely. Only four portraits are known to have been painted after the 1920s. She was, however the subject of literary profiles by Barney and her friends. Brooks turned to drawing, especially complex line drawings. The Impeders (1930) is indicative of her new style.
By the start of WW II, Brooks was mostly forgotten. It wasn’t until the 21st-century that Brooks’ art come to symbolize the openness and sexual freedom that only her independent wealth would allow one-hundred years earlier.
In the late 1960s, Brooks gave a sizable cache of paintings and drawings to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Brooks had missed most of the innovative currents of 20th-century art and had more in common with 19th-century artists such as Whistler than the giants of Cubism or Surrealism or Modern Abstract Art or any other ”isms” popular during her lifetime.
The rediscovery of Brooks in the past two decades was part of the new focus on gender and sexuality, and greater interest in and tolerance for artists who worked with LGBTQ themes. Brooks’ self-portrait from 1923 was one of the more arresting works and provided the poster at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of LGBTQ themes in portraiture, the fabulous 2010 Hide/Seek show, which was censored by the head of The Smithsonian, Wayne Clough.
Several surprising paintings and photographs of female nudes by Brooks, kept in France, and never seen in USA until 2010, showed that she was much more than a talented portraitist. Brooks’ drawings, rendered with a single, uninterrupted line, add dash and wit to an artist known largely for her somber work. Brooks’ art is at least as interesting as her life.
Brooks spent much of her life on the island of Capri, which had become a sort of haven for queer Anglo-American expatriates fearing a backlash after Oscar Wilde‘s 1895 trial and conviction for sodomy. Romaine and Barney spent the war years in Italy. Romaine was staunchly anti-Communist. She had Jewish friends and lovers. She identified Jews with the Russian Revolution because of her former lover Rubinstein and she was aware of American prejudices against Jews. Barney was part Jewish and in constant danger. Romaine had to do everything she could to protect her from the Fascists and Nazis. At first both she and Barney felt that Italy would never get involved in the war and they would be safe there.
Romaine said: “No artist stands for war” and she and Barney were both pacifists. She helped save many Jewish lives at the risk of her own. She protected art historian and collector Bernard Berenson from the Nazis during the six years of war. After WW II ended, Brooks returned to Capri and declined move back to Paris with Barney, saying she wanted to “get back to painting and a painter’s life“, but in fact, she abandoned art after the war.
She became increasingly reclusive. Barney continued to visit her frequently. By the mid-1950s, Brooks was living in a Capri hotel, spending weeks at a time in a darkened room, believing she was losing her eyesight. She became paranoid, fearing that someone was stealing her drawings and that her driver tried to poison her. In 1965, she wrote a letter warning Barney not to lie down on the benches in her garden because the plants would feed on her life force: “Trees especially are our enemies and would suck us dry”, and “My dead mother gets between me and life.”
In the last year of her life, she stopped communicating with Barney, leaving letters unanswered and refusing to open the door when Barney tried to visit.
Brooks died in Nice in 1970 at 96-years-old. Brooks, who was highly conscious of the importance of dress as a social statement, once described her work as “a sign of the age which may amuse some future feminists“, as indeed it has. Her unpublished memoir is titled: No Pleasant Memories.