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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Romaine Brooks

La Trajet, 1900, Romaine Brooks. The model was Ida Rubenstein.
Romaine Brooks
Self-portrait,1923, perhaps
her most recognized work.
I've never written about a lesbian artist before (not knowingly, at least). I have, however written about several gay male artists such as Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and some others. For the majority of these artists, their sexuality was mostly incidental to their work, if not their lives. In writing about such artists I make it a habit not to dwell on gender preferences. That's not the case with the American expatriate painter, Romaine Brooks. Brooks was a lesbian, and her sexuality permeated virtually every aspect of her life and her work. She dressed as a man, she painted portraits of mostly women, she lived with writer, Natalie Barney, for over fifty years, and though she was married briefly to a man, (who was gay) it seems to have been a turbulent marriage of convenience for them both (she was rich, he wasn't). Moreover, had she not been one of the few openly gay female artists of her time, she would probably be little remembered today.
Beatrice Romaine Goddard had a difficult, one might even say tragic, childhood. Born in 1874 in Rome to a wealthy American family, her father deserted his wife, two daughters, and mentally ill son when she was four. She grew up in New York, emotionally abused by her mother, who gave all her attention to her violent son. Eventually, Romaine was put in foster care with a relatively poor family only to have support payments cut off, causing them to sink into poverty. Even though her maternal grandfather was a multi-millionaire, Romaine refused to divulge his name or contact him for fear of being sent back to her mother. Her foster parents eventually located her grandfather on their own. She ended up in an Episcopal boarding school.
Romaine Brooks, ca. 1900,
much more attractive than
seen in her self-portraits.
After graduation, Romaine obtained from her mother money enough to move to Paris where she briefly trained to be a singer, working in a cabaret. Later, moving on to Rome she studied art, the only woman in her life drawing class. Not surprisingly, she was a victim of sexual harassment, which she quickly ended by decking her tormentor with his book of underlined pornographic passages. Constantly battling money problems, Romaine returned to Paris for more art studies, then to the island of Capri where she was to spend much of the rest of her life. With the death of her mother and brother in 1901, Romaine and her sister inherited her grandfather's considerable estate. Now independently wealthy, men suddenly found the struggling young artist quite attractive. In 1903 she married an unsuccessful homosexual pianist, John Ellingham Brooks, who objected vehemently to her masculine mode of dress not to mention her tight control over her wealth. He refused to be seen in public with her. They separated after less than a year, and though they were never divorced, neither were they ever really married in the first place.
The Black Cape, 1907, Romaine Brooks, 
one of her few feminine portraits.
Disposing of her husband (though, for some reason, keeping his name), and dissatisfied with her painting as well (particularly her colorful palette), Romaine Brooks rented a studio in St. Ives on England's Cornish coast where she delved into shades of gray, influenced greatly by the work of another American expatriate, James McNeill Whistler. Having no need to sell her work, she also had no need to pay heed to the swirling modernist movement during the first decades of the 20th century. Her palette was dominated by black, white, and gray, with occasional tints of ochre and umber, all of which caused her to stand out artistically as much as her lifestyle did socially. Moving to Paris, Brooks ignored the avant-garde, her wealth allowing her to mingle among, and paint the upper class social celebrities of the time, several of whom she briefly took at lovers. Recognized by the art dealer, Durand Ruel, who fostered an exhibition of her work in 1910, her reputation as a portrait artist grew along with her high society friendships.
Natalie Barney, 1920, Romaine Brooks,
her companion for more than 50 years.
After a lengthy relationship with actress/dancer Ida Rubenstein (top), whom she painted more often than any other model, Romaine Brooks met the left-bank American writer, Natalie Clifford Barney (right). Today we would call it an open, same-sex marriage, though in pre-WW I France, such arrangements were, of course, unheard of. 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 fifty years. Brook's list of paintings from this period might also be termed her list of female lovers as well. Her short hair and masculine attire became fashionable, as seen in many of Brook's portraits at the time (including her own).

The Impeders, 1930, Romaine Brooks.
After 1925, Romaine Brooks quit painting self-portraits. In fact, she quit painting almost entirely. Only four portraits are known to exist from that point on. She was, however the subject of numerous literary portraits by Natalie Barney and her friends. Brooks turned more to drawing, especially complex line drawings. The Impeders, from 1930, is typical of her style in later years. When an artist fails to produce, they sink into oblivion. Even though she lived to the ripe old age of 96, by the 1960s, Romaine Brooks was largely forgotten. Only in recent years, with the advent of the LGBT movement, has Brooks' art come to symbolize the openness and lifestyle freedom of expression that only her independent wealth would allow one-hundred years ago.

Romaine Brooks poses in her studio around 1960. The writer, Truman Capote, termed
her studio, "the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935, or thereabouts."

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