The name of Romaine Brooks, the early twentieth-century portraitist, is not one that comes to mind instantly when talking about women artists. However, she is remarkable both as an artist and as a person. Brooks showed a deep psychological understanding of her subjects. Her works also serve as important sources helping us understand the construction of female queer identity in the early twentieth century.
Romaine Brooks: No Pleasant Memories
Born in Rome to a rich American family, Romaine Goddard’s life could have been a carefree paradise. The reality was much harsher though. Her father left the family soon after Romaine’s birth, leaving his child with an abusive mother and a mentally ill older brother. Her mother was heavily invested in spiritualism and occultism, hoping to cure her son by all means, while completely neglecting her daughter. When Romaine was seven, her mother Ella abandoned her in New York City, leaving her without any financial support.
When she was older Brooks moved to Paris and tried to make a living as a cabaret singer. After Paris, she moved to Rome in order to study art, struggling to make ends meet. She was the only female student in the whole group. Brooks endured continuous harassment from her male peers and the situation was so severe that she had to flee to Capri. She lived in extreme poverty in her tiny studio in an abandoned church.
It all changed in 1901, when her ill brother and mother died within less than a year of each other, leaving an enormous inheritance to Romaine. From that moment on, she became truly free. She married a scholar named John Brooks, taking his last name. The reasons for this marriage are unclear, at least from Romaine’s side, since she was never attracted to the opposite sex, and neither was John who soon after their separation moved in with the novelist Edward Benson. Even after the separation, he still received a yearly allowance from his ex-wife. Some say that the main reason for their separation was not the lack of mutual attraction, but rather John’s ridiculous spending habits, which annoyed Romaine since her inheritance was the couple’s primary source of income.
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The Moment of Triumph
This was the moment when Brooks, a triumphant heiress of a huge fortune, finally moved to Paris and found herself right in the middle of elite circles with Parisian locals and foreigners. In particular, she found herself in the queer elite circles that were a safe space for her. She started painting full-time, not having to worry about her finances anymore.
Brooks’ portraits show women from the elite circles, many of them being her lovers and close friends. In a way, her oeuvre functions as a deep study of the lesbian identity of her time. The women in Brooks’ circle were financially independent, with their family fortunes allowing them to live their lives in the ways they desired. In fact, it was complete financial independence that allowed Romaine Brooks to create and exhibit her art without depending on the traditional system consisting of Salons and patrons. She never had to fight for her place in exhibitions or galleries since she could afford to organize a one-woman show in the prestigious Durand-Rouel gallery all by herself in 1910. Earning money was also never her priority. She rarely sold any of her works, donating most of her works to the Smithsonian museum not long before her death.
Romaine Brooks and the Queer Identity
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the ideas surrounding queer identity absorbed new aspects and dimensions. Queer identity was no longer limited to sexual preferences only. Thanks to people like Oscar Wilde, homosexuality was accompanied by a certain lifestyle, aesthetics, and cultural preferences.
However, such a distinct shift in the mass culture concerned some people. In nineteenth-century literature and popular culture, a typical representation of lesbians was limited to the concept of femmes damnées, the unnatural and perverse beings, tragic in their own corruption. Charles Baudelaire’s collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal was centered around such a kind of stereotypical decadent representation.
None of this can be found in the works of Romaine Brooks. The women in her portraits are not stereotypical caricatures or projections of someone else’s desires. Although some paintings seem dreamier than others, most of them are realistic and deeply psychological portraits of real people. The portraits feature a wide array of different-looking women. There’s the feminine figure of Natalie Clifford-Barney, who was Brooks’ lover for fifty years, and there’s the overly masculine portrait of Una Troubridge, a British sculptor. Troubridge was also the partner of Radclyffe Hall, the author of the scandalous novel The Well of Loneliness which was published in 1928.
The portrait of Troubridge seems almost like a caricature. This was probably Brooks’ intention. Although the artist herself wore men’s suits and short hair, she despised the attempts of other lesbians like Troubridge who tried to look as masculine as possible. In Brooks’ opinion, there was a fine line between breaking free from the gender conventions of the era and appropriating the attributes of the male gender. In other words, Brooks believed that queer women of her circle were not supposed to look manly, but rather go beyond the limitations of gender and male approval. The portrait of Troubridge in an awkward posture, wearing a suit and a monocle, strained the relationship between the artist and the model.
Queer Icon Ida Rubinstein
In 1911, Romaine Brooks found her ideal model in Ida Rubinstein. Rubinstein, a Ukrainian-born Jewish dancer, was the heiress to one of the richest families of the Russian Empire that was forcefully put in a mental asylum after a private production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome during which Rubinstein stripped completely naked. This was considered indecent and scandalous for anyone, let alone for a high-class heiress.
After escaping the mental asylum, Ida arrived in Paris for the first time in 1909. There she started working as a dancer in the Cleopatre ballet that was produced by Sergei Diaghilev. Her slender figure rising from a sarcophagus on stage had a tremendous effect on the Parisian public, with Brooks being fascinated by Rubinstein right from the beginning. Their relationship lasted for three years and resulted in numerous portraits of Rubinstein, some of them painted years after their breakup. In fact, Ida Rubinstein was the only one who was repeatedly portrayed in Brooks’ painting. Not a single one of her other friends and lovers were given the honor of being portrayed more than once.
The images of Rubinstein generated surprising mythological connotations, elements of symbolist allegories, and surrealist dreams. Her well-known painting Le Trajet shows Rubinstein’s nude figure stretched on a wing-like white shape, contrasting the pitch darkness of the background. For Brooks, the slim androgynous figure was the absolute beauty ideal and the embodiment of queer feminine beauty. In the case of Brooks and Rubinstein, we can talk about the queer female gaze to the fullest extent. These nude portraits are erotically charged, yet they express the idealized beauty different from the normative heterosexual paradigm coming from a male viewer.
Romaine Brooks’s Fifty Years Long Union
The relationship between Romaine Brooks and Ida Rubinstein lasted for three years and most likely ended on a bitter note. According to art historians, Rubinstein was so invested in this relationship she wanted to buy a farm somewhere far away in order to live there together with Brooks. However, Brooks was not interested in such a reclusive lifestyle. It is also possible that the breakup happened because Brooks fell in love with another American living in Paris, Nathalie Clifford-Barney. Nathalie was as rich as Brooks. She became famous for hosting the infamous lesbian Salon. Their fifty-year-long relationship was however polyamorous.
Fifty years later, however, they broke up. Brooks was suddenly fed up with their non-monogamous lifestyle. The artist grew more reclusive and paranoid with age, and when Barney, already in her eighties, found herself a new lover in the wife of a Romanian ambassador, Brooks had enough. Her last years were spent in complete seclusion, with barely any contact with the outside world. She stopped painting and focused on writing her autobiography, a memoir called No Pleasant Memories which was never published. The book was illustrated with simple line drawings, made by Brooks during the 1930s.
Romaine Brooks died in 1970, leaving all of her works to the Smithsonian museum. Her works did not attract much attention in the following decades. However, the development of queer art history and liberalization of the art historical discourse made it possible to talk about her oeuvre without censorship and oversimplification. Another feature that made Brooks’ art so hard to discuss was the fact that she deliberately avoided joining any art movement or group.