Romaine Brooks (May 1, 1874 – December 7, 1970), born Beatrice Romaine Goddard, was an American painter who specialized in portraiture and used a subdued palette dominated by the color gray. Brooks ignored contemporary artistic trends such as Cubism and Fauvism, drawing instead on the Symbolist and Aesthetic movements of the 19th century, especially the works of James McNeill Whistler. Her subjects ranged from anonymous models to titled aristocrats, but she is best known for her images of women in androgynous or masculine dress, including her self-portrait of 1923, which is her most widely reproduced work.
Brooks had an unhappy childhood with an emotionally abusive mother and a mentally ill brother, which by her own account cast a shadow over her whole life. She spent several years in Italy and France as an impoverished art student, then inherited a fortune upon her mother's death. Wealth gave her the freedom to choose her own subjects, and she often painted people close to her, such as the Italian writer and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio, the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and her partner of more than 50 years, the writer Natalie Barney.
Although she lived until 1970, she painted very little after 1925. She made a series of line drawings during the early 1930s, using an "unpremeditated" technique resembling automatic drawing, then virtually abandoned art, completing only a single portrait after World War II.
Life and career Edit
Early life Edit
Brooks was born in Rome, Italy, the youngest of three children of Ella Waterman Goddard and Major Henry Goddard; her maternal grandfather was the multimillionaire Isaac S. Waterman, Jr. Her parents divorced when she was small, and she was raised by her unstable mother, who abused her emotionally while doting on her mentally ill brother, St. Mar From an early age she had to tend to St. Mar—cutting his hair and preventing him from harming himself—because he attacked anyone else who came near him. According to her memoir, when she was seven her mother fostered her to a poor family living in a New York City tenement, then disappeared and stopped making the agreed-upon payments. The family continued to care for her, even though it meant sinking further into poverty. She did not tell them where her grandfather lived for fear of being returned to her mother. After the foster family located her grandfather on their own, she spent several years at an Episcopal boarding school, and later, a year in a convent school, in between times spent with her mother, who moved around Europe constantly even though the stress of travel made St. Mar harder to control. In adulthood Brooks referred to herself as having been a "child-martyr".
In 1893 the future artist left her family and went to Paris alone. She extracted a meager allowance from her mother, took voice lessons, and for a time sang in a cabaret, then travelled to Rome to study art. It was still unusual at the time for women to draw nude models, and as the only female student in her life class, Brooks encountered what would now be called sexual harassment. When a fellow student left a book open on her stool with pornographic passages underlined, she picked it up and hit him in the face with it, and was not bothered again.
In the summer of 1899 she rented a studio in the poorest part of the island of Capri, which had not yet become a major tourist destination and was a very inexpensive place to live. She studied art briefly in Paris, but her funds were insufficient, and after several months of starvation she suffered a physical breakdown. In 1901 her brother St. Mar died. She returned home to help care for her grief-stricken mother, who died less than a year later from complications of advanced diabetes. She inherited half of the large estate her grandfather had left.
The following year Brooks married her friend John Ellingham Brooks, an unsuccessful pianist and translator who was in deep financial difficulty. He was homosexual, and the bisexual Romaine never revealed exactly why she married him, but her biographer Meryle Secrest suggests that she was motivated by concern for him and a desire for companionship rather than the need for a marriage of convenience. They quarrelled almost immediately when she cut her hair and ordered men's clothes for a planned walking tour of England; he refused to be seen in public with her dressed that way. Chafing at his desire for outward propriety, she left him after only a year and moved to London.
In 1904 Brooks became dissatisfied with her work, and in particular with the bright color schemes that she had used in her early paintings. She travelled to St. Ives on the Cornish coast, rented a small studio, and began teaching herself to reproduce finer and finer gradations of gray. When a group of local artists asked her to give an informal show of her work, she displayed only some pieces of cardboard on which she had dabbed her experiments with gray paint. From then on, nearly all her paintings were dominated by gray, white, and black, sometimes with ochre or umber. She had found the palette she would use her whole career.
First exhibition Edit
Brooks left St. Ives and moved to Paris. As painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were reinventing art in the Bohemian districts of Montparnasse and Montmartre, Brooks took an apartment in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, mingled in elite social circles, and painted portraits of wealthy and titled women, including her lover at the time, the Princess de Polignac. In 1910 she had her first solo show at the prestigious Gallery Durand-Ruel, displaying thirteen paintings, almost all of women or young girls. Some were portraits; others showed anonymous models in interior scenes or against monochromatic backgrounds, often with pensive or withdrawn expressions. The paintings were generally naturalistic, showing an attentive eye for the details of Belle Époque fashion, with parasols, veils, and elaborate bonnets on display.
Brooks included two nude studies in this first exhibition—a provocative choice for a woman artist in 1910. In one, The Red Jacket, a young woman stands in front of a large folding screen, wearing only a small open jacket, with her hands behind her back. She is so frail, and her downcast face looks so forlorn, that one contemporary reviewer referred to her as a consumptive; Brooks described her simply as "a poor girl who was cold". The other, White Azaleas, is a more sexually charged nude study of a woman reclining on a couch in Brooks's studio; contemporary reviews compared it to Francisco de Goya's La maja desnuda and Édouard Manet's Olympia. Unlike the women in those paintings, however, the subject of White Azaleas looks away from the viewer, with a distinctly forbidding expression.
The exhibition established Brooks's reputation as an artist. Reviews were effusive, and the poet Robert de Montesquiou wrote an appreciation calling her "the thief of souls". The restrained, almost monochromatic decor of her home also attracted attention; she was often asked to give advice on interior design, and sometimes did, though she did not relish the role of decorator. She became more and more disillusioned with Parisian high society, finding the conversation dull and feeling that people were whispering about her. Despite her artistic success, she described herself as a lapidé—literally, a victim of stoning.
Gabriele D'Annunzio and Ida Rubinstein Edit
In 1909 Brooks met Gabriele D'Annunzio, an Italian writer and politician who had come to France to escape his debts. She saw him as a martyred artist, a lapidé like herself; he wrote poems based on her works and called her "the most profound and wise orchestrator of grays in modern painting". They spent the summer of 1910 in a villa on the coast of France, in a romantic interlude that was disrupted when D'Annunzio's jealous ex-mistress arrived in town. Their friendship remained strong throughout D'Annunzio's life.
In 1911 Brooks became romantically involved with Ida Rubinstein, an actress and dancer formerly with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, to whom D'Annunzio had an obsessive but unrequited attraction. Rubinstein was deeply in love with Brooks; she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they could live alone together—a mode of life in which Brooks had no interest. Although they broke up in 1914, Brooks painted Rubinstein more often than any other subject; for Brooks, Rubinstein's "fragile and androgynous beauty" represented an aesthetic ideal. The earliest of these paintings are a series of allegorical nudes. In The Crossing (also exhibited as The Dead Woman), Rubinstein appears as a corpse, stretched on a white bed or bier against a black void; in Spring, she strews flowers on the ground in a grassy meadow. When Rubinstein starred in D'Annunzio's play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Brooks painted her as Saint Sebastian—tied to a post, being shot with an arrow by a masked dwarf standing on a table. The dwarf is thought to represent D'Annunzio.
At the beginning of World War I, Brooks painted The Cross of France, a symbolic image of France at war, showing a Red Cross nurse looking off to the side with a resolute expression while Ypres burns in the distance behind her. Although it is not a portrait of Ida Rubinstein, it does resemble her, and she may have modelled for it. It was exhibited along with a poem by D'Annunzio calling for courage and resolution in wartime, and later reproduced in a booklet sold to raise funds for the Red Cross. After the war, Brooks received the cross of the Legion of Honor for her fundraising efforts.
The political imagery of The Cross of France has been compared to Eugène Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People, in which a woman personifying Liberty holds up a flag against the background of a burning city. Delacroix's Liberty, however, leads a group of Parisians who have taken up arms, while the subject of The Cross of France stands alone. Brooks used this romantic image of a figure in heroic isolation several times; a 1912 portrait of D'Annunzio, a 1914 self-portrait, and a portrait of Rubinstein completed in 1917 all show their subjects wrapped in dark cloaks and isolated against seascapes.
During the war D'Annunzio became a national hero as leader of a fighter squadron. Then, during the Paris Peace Conference, he led a group of nationalist irregulars that seized and held the city of Fiume to prevent Italy from ceding it to Croatia. He briefly set up a government, the Italian Regency of Carnaro, with himself as Duce. Although he was never part of Benito Mussolini's government, he is regarded as a precursor of Fascism. The details of Brooks's own politics are unclear, but she was evidently sympathetic to Italian Fascism, and the romantic individualism of her paintings may have been influenced by D'Annunzio's ideologies—an idea that has troubled some viewers otherwise attracted to the imagery of Brooks's portraits.
Brooks painted Rubinstein one last time in The Weeping Venus (1916–17), a nude based on a photograph taken during their relationship. According to her unpublished memoir, the painting represents "the passing away of familiar gods" as a result of World War I. She said she tried to repaint Venus's features many times, but Rubinstein's face somehow kept returning: "It fixes itself in the mind."
Natalie Barney and Left Bank portraits Edit
The longest and most important relationship of Brooks's life was with Natalie Clifford Barney, whom she met around the start of World War I. Barney was an American-born writer who hosted a literary salon on Paris's Left Bank. She was avowedly nonmonogamous; when they met she was already in a close long-term relationship with Elisabeth de Gramont which would last until de Gramont's death in 1954, and she had many other relationships of varying length and devotion as well. Brooks tolerated Barney's casual affairs well enough to tease her about them, and had a few of her own over the years, but could become jealous when a new love became serious. Usually she simply left town, but at one point she gave Barney an ultimatum to choose between her and Dolly Wilde—relenting once Barney had given in. At the same time, while Brooks was devoted to Barney, she did not want to live with her as a full-time couple; she disliked Paris, disdained Barney's friends, hated the constant socializing on which Barney thrived, and felt that she was fully herself only when alone. To accommodate Brooks's need for solitude they built a summer home consisting of two separate wings joined by a dining room, which they called Villa Trait d'Union, the "hyphenated villa". Brooks also spent much of each year in Italy or travelling elsewhere in Europe, away from Barney. The relationship lasted for more than 50 years.
Brooks's portrait of Barney has a softer look than her other paintings of the 1920s. Barney sits, swathed in a fur coat, in the house at 20 Rue Jacob where she lived and held her salon. In the window behind her, the courtyard is dusted with snow. Brooks often included animals or models of animals in her compositions to represent the personalities of her sitters; she painted Barney with a small sculpture of a horse, alluding to the love of horseback riding that had led Remy de Gourmont to nickname her "the Amazon". The paper on which the horse stands may be one of Barney's manuscripts.
From 1920 to 1924, most of Brooks's portrait subjects were of women who were in Barney's social circle or who visited her salon. Truman Capote, who toured Brooks's studio in the late 1940s, may have been exaggerating when he called it "the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts", but she did paint Elisabeth de Gramont; Barney's lover Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux; her own lover Renata Borgatti; Una, Lady Troubridge, the partner of Radclyffe Hall; and the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein).
Several of these paintings depict women who had adopted some aspects of male dress. While in 1903 Brooks had shocked her husband by cutting her hair short and ordering a suit of men's clothes from a tailor, by the mid 1920s bobbed and cropped hairstyles were in and wearing tailored jackets—usually with a skirt—was a recognized fashion, discussed in magazines as the "severely masculine" look. Women like Gluck, Troubridge, and Brooks used variations of the masculine mode, not to pass as men, but as a signal—a way of making their sexuality visible to others. At the time these paintings were made, however, it was a code that only a select few knew how to read. To a mainstream audience, the women in these paintings probably just looked fashionable.
Gluck, an English artist whom Brooks painted around 1923, was noted in the contemporary press as much for her style of dress as for her art. She pushed the masculine style further than most by wearing trousers on all occasions, which was not yet considered acceptable in the 1920s. Even so, articles about her presented her cross-dressing as an artistic eccentricity or as a sign that she was ultra-modern. Brooks's portrait shows Gluck in a starched white shirt, a silk tie, and a long black belted coat that she designed herself and had made by a "mad dressmaker"; her right hand, at her waist, holds a man's hat. Brooks painted these masculine accoutrements with the same attention she had once given to the parasols and ostrich plumes of La Belle Époque. But while many of her early paintings show sad and withdrawn figures "consumed by petticoats, veiled hats and other period trappings of femininity", Gluck is self-possessed and quietly intense—an artist who insists on being taken seriously. Her appearance is so androgynous that it would be difficult to identify her as a woman without help from the title, and the title itself—Peter, a Young English Girl—underscores the gender ambiguity of the image.
Brooks's 1923 self-portrait has a grimmer tone. Brooks—who also designed her own clothes—painted herself in a tailored riding coat, gloves, and top hat. Behind her is a ruined building rendered in gray and black, underneath a slate-colored sky. The only spots of strong color are her lipstick and the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor that she wears on her lapel, recalling the Red Cross insignia in The Cross of France. Her eyes are shaded by the brim of her hat, so that, according to one critic, "she's watching you before you get close enough to look at her. She's not passively inviting your approach; she's deciding whether you're worth bothering with."
Literary portraits of BrooksEdit
In 1925 Brooks had solo exhibitions in Paris, London, and New York. After that year she produced only four more paintings, including portraits of Carl Van Vechten in 1936 and Muriel Draper in 1938. At the same time that her output of art diminished, however, she became the subject of literary portraits by three writers, all of whom depicted her as part of lesbian social cricles in Paris and Capri.
Brooks was the model for the painter Venetia Ford in Radclyffe Hall's first novel, The Forge (1924). The protagonist, Susan Brent, first encounters Ford among a group of women at a masquerade ball in Paris; the descriptions of these women correspond closely to Brooks's portraits, particularly those of Elisabeth de Gramont and Una Troubridge. Brent decides to leave her husband and pursue art after seeing the painting The Weeping Venus. Brooks also appeared in Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women (1928), a novel about a group of lesbians on Capri during World War I, as the composer Olympia Leigh. Although the novel is satirical, Mackenzie treats Brooks with more dignity than the rest of the characters, portraying her as a detached observer of the others' jealous intrigues—even those of which she is the focus. In Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack (1928), a roman à clef of Natalie Barney's circle in Paris, she makes a brief appearance as Cynic Sal, who "dresse[s] like a coachman of the period of Pecksniff"—a reference to the style of dress seen in her 1923 self-portrait.
Drawings and later life Edit
In 1930, while laid up with a sprained leg, Brooks began a series of more than 100 drawings of humans, angels, demons, animals, and monsters, all formed out of continuous curved lines. She said that when she started a line she didn't know where it would go, and that the drawings "evolve[d] from the subconscious...[w]ithout premeditation." Brooks was writing her unpublished memoir No Pleasant Memories at the same time she began this series of drawings, and they have been interpreted as exploring the continuing effect of her childhood on her—a theme expressed even in the symbol she used to sign them, a wing tethered with a rope or chain. Decades later, at 85, she said "My dead mother gets between me and life."
Brooks stopped drawing around 1935. She moved from Paris to a villa outside Florence, Italy in 1937, and in 1940—fleeing the invasion of France by Germany—Barney joined her there. After World War II ended, Brooks declined to move back to Paris with Barney, saying she wanted to "get back to [her] painting and painter's life", but in fact she virtually abandoned art after the war. She lost interest in promoting her own work, leaving it to Barney to arrange gallery placements of her paintings. She became increasingly reclusive, and while Barney continued to visit her frequently, by the mid-1950s she had to stay in a hotel, meeting Brooks only for lunch. Brooks spent 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 chauffeur planned to poison her. In a 1965 letter she cautioned Barney not to lie down on the benches in her garden, lest the plants feed on her life force: "Trees especially are our enemies and would suck us dry." In the last year of her life she stopped communicating with Barney entirely, leaving letters unanswered and refusing to open the door when Barney came to visit. She died in Nice, France, in 1970 at the age of 96.
Brooks kept aloof from the artistic trends and movements of her time, "act[ing] as if the Fauvists, the Cubists, and the Abstract Expressionists did not exist." However, critics have identified the influence of Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations and of Symbolism, particularly in her paintings of Ida Rubinstein. The imagery of the 1930s drawings suggests Surrealism, and Brooks's use of "unpremeditated" drawing as a route to the subconscious resembles the experiments with automatic drawing made by Surrealists such as André Masson.
The most widely observed influence on Brooks's painting is that of James McNeill Whistler, whose subdued palette probably inspired her use of the color gray. She may have been introduced to Whistler's work by the art collector Charles Lang Freer, whom she met on Capri around 1899, and who bought one of her early works. Brooks said she "wondered at the magic subtlety of [Whistler's] tones" but thought his 'symphonies' lacked corresponding subtlety of expression. One 1920 portrait may take its composition from a painting by Whistler. While the poses are almost identical, Brooks removes the little girl and all the details of Whistler's domestic scene, leaving only Borgatti and her piano—an image of an artist completely focused on her art.
Legacy and modern criticismEdit
Brooks's conservative style led many art critics to dismiss her, and by the 1960s her work was largely forgotten. The revival of figurative painting since the 1980s and new interest in the exploration of gender and sexuality through art have led to a reassessment of her work, and she is now seen as a precursor of present-day artists whose works depict cross-dressing and transgender themes. Critics have described her portraits of the 1920s as a "sly celebration of gender-bending as a kind of heroic act" and as creating "the first visible Sapphic stars in the history of modernism."
More generally, Brooks's portraits starting with the The Cross of France have been interpreted as creating new images of strong women. The portraits of the 1920s in particular—cross-dressed and otherwise—portray their subjects as powerful, self-confident, and fearless. One critic compared them to the faces on Mount Rushmore. Brooks herself seems to have seen her portraits in this light. According to a memoir by Natalie Barney, one woman complained, upon seeing her portrait, "You haven't beautified me", to which Brooks replied, "I have ennobled you."
Yet Brooks did not always ennoble her subjects. Inherited wealth freed her from the need to sell her paintings; she didn't care whether she pleased her sitters or not, and her wit, when unleashed, could be devastating. A striking example is her 1914–15 portrait of Elsie de Wolfe, an interior designer who she felt had copied her monochromatic color schemes. She painted de Wolfe porcelain-pale, in an off-white dress and a bonnet resembling a shower cap; a white ceramic goat placed on a table at her elbow seems to mimic her simpering expression.
One of Brooks's most analyzed paintings, a 1924 portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge, has been seen as everything from an image of female self-empowerment to a caricature. Art critic Michael Duncan sees the painting as making fun of Troubridge's "dandified appearance", while for Meryle Secrest it is "a tour de force of ironic commentary". Laura Doan, pointing out newspaper and magazine articles from 1924 in which high collars, tailored satin jackets, and watch fobs are described as the latest in women's wear, describes Troubridge as having a "keen fashion sense and an eye for sartorial detail". However, these British fashions may not have been favored in Paris; Natalie Barney and others in her circle considered Troubridge's outfits ridiculous. Brooks expressed her own view in a letter to Barney: "Una is funny to paint. Her get-up is remarkable. She will live perhaps and cause future generations to smile."
- ↑ Latimer, Women Together, 51.
- ↑ Secrest, 17–42.
- ↑ Rodriguez, 223.
- ↑ Secrest, 108–109.
- ↑ Secrest, 123–145, 173.
- ↑ Secrest, 179–181.
- ↑ Secrest, 186–189.
- ↑ Chadwick, 18–19.
- ↑ Lucchesi, "Apparition", 75–76.
- ↑ Secrest, 197, 204–206.
- ↑ Latimer, "Sapphic Modernity", 38.
- ↑ Secrest, 193.
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 Chadwick, 22–23.
- ↑ Lucchesi, "Apparition", 80 and Secrest, 243–244.
- ↑ Secrest, 243.
- ↑ From Brooks's unpublished memoir No Pleasant Memories; quoted in Lucchesi, "Apparition", 85.
- ↑ Secrest, 248.
- ↑ 18.0 18.1 Chadwick, 27–28.
- ↑ Chadwick, 13, discusses D'Annunzio's influence; Langer, 47n5 and 47n9, cautions that: "Brooks's support of Fascism has not been documented" but nevertheless seems to agree she had some Fascist sympathies; Warren discusses her own reaction to Brooks's politics.
- ↑ Lucchesi, "Apparition", 84–85.
- ↑ Rodriguez, 295–301.
- ↑ Souhami, 137–139, 146, and Secrest, 277.
- ↑ Rodriguez, 227, 295.
- ↑ Langer, 46.
- ↑ Elliott and Wallace, 15 and 27n9.
- ↑ Wickes, 257.
- ↑ Doan, 114–117 and passim.
- ↑ Langer, 45 and Elliott, 74.
- ↑ Doan, 117–119.
- ↑ Elliott, 73.
- ↑ 31.0 31.1 Duncan (2002).
- ↑ Taylor, 13.
- ↑ Elliott and Wallace, 20.
- ↑ Langer, 45.
- ↑ Chadwick, 33.
- ↑ Cotter (2000).
- ↑ Chadwick, 36.
- ↑ Lucchesi, "Something Hidden", 173–174.
- ↑ Secrest, 286–294.
- ↑ Barnes, 36. Cynic Sal is identified as Brooks in Weiss, 156.
- ↑ Secrest, 308–310.
- ↑ Chastain, 13–14.
- ↑ Secrest, v.
- ↑ Chastain, 9.
- ↑ Souhami, 169.
- ↑ Souhami, 178.
- ↑ Chadwick, 37.
- ↑ Souhami, 194.
- ↑ Souhami, 183–184.
- ↑ Secrest, 358.
- ↑ Secrest, 376–377.
- ↑ Souhami, 197.
- ↑ Secrest, 311.
- ↑ Chadwick, 26–27.
- ↑ Chastain, 10.
- ↑ Secrest, 135–136.
- ↑ Secrest, 186.
- ↑ Chadwick, 32.
- ↑ Secrest, 311–312.
- ↑ Chadwick, 8, and Duncan. For an extended comparison of Brooks's portraits with a 1990s series of photographs by the transsexual artist Loren Cameron, see Melanie Taylor's "Peter (A Young English Girl): Visualizing Transgender Masculinities."
- ↑ Langer, 45.
- ↑ Chadwick, 27, 32.
- ↑ O'Sullivan (2000).
- ↑ Natalie Barney, Aventures de l'Esprit, quoted in Jay, 30.
- ↑ Langer, 46 and Secrest, 199 and 325–326.
- ↑ Cassandra Langer calls it an image of female self-empowerment in "Transgressing Le droit du seigneur: The Lesbian Feminist Defining Herself in Art History." New Feminist Criticism: Art-Identity-Action. Joanna Frueh, Cassandra Langer, and Arlene Raven, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. 320. Quoted in Chadwick, 35. Secrest, 124, describes it as a caricature.
- ↑ Secrest, 199.
- ↑ Doan, 116–117.
- ↑ Rodriguez, 272.
- ↑ Secrest, 292.
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