Romaine and Her Circle

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

Two new books; Joan Howard’s, We Met in Paris and Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess reference individuals who were part of Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont’s circle.

The first is a biography of the entwined lives of Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar. Yourcenar, was the first modern women elected to the L’Academe francaise, an institution created in 1635. It is the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language. It is limited to forty seats and each member is assigned a number. Its members are known as the “l’immortaliete.  They serve for life. This honor was granted to Marguerite Yourcenar despite having lived in America and becoming an American citizen since the 1940’s. She was the first woman, elected in 1980 largely due to the advocacy of her friend and mentor, Natalie Barney.0826221556.1.zoom-1

Yourcenar’s highly complex historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, lovingly translated by her partner, Grace Frick won her the recognition she needed to be elected. Yourcenar’s number was 3.

Natalie had been aware of Marguerite’s talents and encouraged her early on. It was through Natalie’s friendship with both Grace and Maguerite, (known as Madame to her American friends and acquaintances) that Romaine Brooks became friendly with the couple. In fact, as Howard explained to me, Marguerite, in 1954 specifically requested to have a meeting with only Natalie and Romaine excluding Lily. Natalie had asked to bring the duchess along as she was part of the three-way marriage that Natalie had with these women. But Yourcenar and Grace scotched that plan much to Natalie’s chagrin.

I speculated with Howard that one of the reasons may have been Marguerite’s intense interest in art.  She wanted to have a serious conversation with Romaine about her portraits. The writer and painter would have had much to discuss since Yourcenar visualized her plots and characters before writing them down. She was interested in how Romaine, who was known as the thief of souls in the popular press created her portrayals.

She might have said, Romaine tell me how you see your models? And, Romaine would have been reluctant to reveal her secrets. But my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life attempts to reveal some of them. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall to listen in on what these four modernist women had to say. it must have been a fascinating conversation.

Lamentably, Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess, configures Lily as the invisible woman. shoppingIn the publicity referencing Marcel Proust’s models for his Duchess of Guermantes in Remembrance of Things past, Lily is barely mentioned. This is perhaps because the biography by Francesco Rapazzini’s has yet to be translated into English. Yet, Weber who is fluent in French seems to overlook it despite her extensive bibliography. Why?

Here is the book you must read

Rapazzini, Elisabeth de Gramont: Avante-gardiste (Fayard in 2004 unfortunately not translated into English) proves over and over again that Elisabeth de Gramont, Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre who was a close friend of the famous author, a star in her own right, and marvelously portrayed by Romaine Brooks was the source of Proust’s intimate knowledge of the French aristocracy and their carrying-ons.

At the very least, one has to question is Lily left because of her lesbianism. Once she left her husband (and eventually divorced him) she made no bones about the joys of her new life and moved in with Natalie Barney who supported her and her daughters. Leaving out Lily’s central role in forming Proust’s impressions only creates a host of future problems for Proust scholars. It is my sincere hope that Rapazzini’s book will soon be translated into English thus giving English speaking readers an opportunity to enjoy the life and adventures of one the most fascinating woman of this era.

Please check out my events page for future speaking engagements.

In Search of the Elusive

The quest that never ends. flying to London to meet up with art historian colleagues and documentary film producers in search of more clues regarding the elusive Mrs. Brooks. The hope is to produce a documentary that may peak interest and lead to the missing paintings of Romaine Brooks.

What we have discovered so far is a story oft repeated in the annals of the history of art. In Romaine’s case a shame-based family history that led to many of her letters, books, drawings and paintings ending up at a flea market where they disappeared into the chaos that often follows a once renown artist’s possessions after long neglect. Such is the case with Brooks.

Thus far I have restored two paintings and a couple of drawings to her legacy and I am on the trail of others. Among the ones I seek are the other half of the famous Couteau portrait. Romaine took a dislike to Couteau and cut this painting in half. The missing half featured two young women on the balcony. One was thought to be Natalie Barney’s sister, Laura. In the course of my research, I located a letter referring to this painting being involved in a lawsuit of some sort wherein the plaintive contacted Romaine in hopes of winning his claim to the missing picture.

So where does this leave the earnest researcher/historian? Up in the air more or less unless they have the funds to travel and put in the required time to track down the missing clues and contact the surviving members of an individual’s family to see if a trail exists. It is a “cold-case” situation. So for those of you who follow the adventures, I lead stay tuned for future updates relating to Romaine and her circle.


17-plus books for 2017

Romaine Brooks was a cosmopolitan whose circle in Paris and elsewhere included several of the personalities and topics covered in the books that James has listed in his bog. Anyone interested in Romaine and her circle will find much for thought in these selections.

Strange Flowers

In keeping with a theme, this – a look ahead at books of a Strange Flowers flavour coming out this year – was going to be “17 books for 2017”. But so many interesting titles have gathered on the horizon that I had to abandon the conceit altogether. Here, then, is a metric shitload of books for 2017.


It is a year in which the news already resembles dystopian fiction, so might books like Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin tell us how it all ends? Originally published in Italian in 1977, this grim parallel parable draws on the occult allure of Turin, and features mysterious outbreaks of savagery and intimate thoughts being communicated “across the ether” (cf. right now). Thanks to translator Ramon Glazov it is now finally available in English. Joining it in a violent speculative realm is China Miéville’s The Last Days of New…

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Rediscovering Romaine

An art historian’s work it seems is never done. One of the great joys of spending more than half your life in the dust bins of history is discovering something new and then being able to bring that find before the public. Few art historians much less one who is also a painter, poet and arts critic such as myself can hope to achieve in a lifetime.

Being able to add lost work to an artist career is rare but Romaine  herself led me to the discovery of an early work by her hidden in  plain sight in the music room of the Vittoriale Foundation in Gardone Riviera, Italy. The backstory is fascinating.



Did she stop painting?

According to Romaine Brooks she never laid aside her brushes. In her audio interview from 1968 she was dismayed that McAvoy had painted her in a background that show her with dried up brushes and a pallet. She said emphatically that he had not shown her glass table that she used as a pallet which implied that she was not painting any more. By implication this suggest that she was still actively making act at the time he painted her.

So for those of you reading Wiki I am in the process of updating the errors in it. It is a work in progress. It was her intention to paint him but he never was available long enough to sit for her. So she painted Duke Umberto Strozzi at the age of 87 in 1961.


An Aristocracy of Taste

The performance artist Claude Cahun contended that lesbianism “occurs with special frequency in women of high intelligence.” Absolutely, when it came to what she called an “aristocracy of taste, few could equal Romaine Brooks. This contention is amply borne out by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s current retrospective of Romaine Brooks’s paintings and drawings on view until October 2, 2016.


Behind the Scenes Of An Exhibition

Behind the Scenes

The first Romaine Brooks solo exhibition in over 16 years opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on the 17th of June. Most viewers remain unaware of what goes into researching, organizing, and putting on an exhibition. So somewhat like Dorothy’s dog Toto in the  film the Wizard of Oz let me pull the curtain back to reveal one aspect of what goes into making it all happen: art conservation.

As a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts in NYC in 1968 I first became acquainted with this subtle art through the pioneering pair of art restorers, Sheldon and Caroline Keck. At the time, like many young art historians today, I had no idea what went into restoring a painting. Sheldon Keck died in 1993 but not before he and Caroline set up the first conservation school in the country. They taught students how to remove accumulated grime, discolored varnish and other signs of wear and tear from paintings, restoring them to their original beauty.

The art of a sensitive conservator is a miraculous thing. At the Smithsonian Tiarna Doherty’s sensitive insights into the art of Romaine Brooks have contributed immeasurably to this exhibition and our knowledge of Romaine Brooks as a skilled painter.

Tiarna will give two gallery talks this summer: the first on Tuesday June 21st at 4 p.m. and the second on Monday August 15 at noon. She will highlight the paintings of Romaine Brooks with an in-depth look at how conservators work to preserve an artist’s intended effects. This is a must see for artists and lovers of art worldwide who want to really appreciate this great painter.

My book devotes a considerable number of words regarding how to look at, see and experience a Brooks painting to get the fullest possible pleasure from it. Happy viewing. The show will run through the end of September.

Speaking engagements can be arranged by request.  At events, signed copies of the book will be available for purchase, please contact U of Wisconsin Press or myself.

Cover Girl

Romaine Brooks made the cover of the museum magazine!

Peter, a young English girl in actuality is the Jewish English lesbian painter known as Gluck. They were rivals and although Romaine completed the stunning portrait of Gluck as per their arrangement for an exchange Gluck never completed hers. We only know of the unfinished painting through photographs.

The exhibition opens in Washington, DC  on June 17th where Romaine will finally be returned to the pantheon of American painting where she belongs.

I shall be kicking off the panel from 4-7pm covering Romaine’s art and life along with my sister panelists. Please come, it is free and open to the public. My book serves as the catalogue and more for this exhibition.

My book serves as the catalogue and more for this exhibition.

If Walls Could Talk

Harmony and cacophony were elements that concerned Romaine Brooks all her life.

“Paris”, as Audrey Hepburn, famously said, “is always a good idea”.

What is most remarkable about Romaine Brooks and her friends is that their generous patronage of writers, poets, musicians, artists, designers and performers made a vibrant cultural scene possible because of their inherited wealth.

From an early age Brooks had a heightened awareness of pattern and decoration, and how objects came together in space. Her aesthetics extend into the realm of both her surroundings, as well as her clothing and art as manifestations of her philosophy. Brooks lived through her eyes and ears. She was fully engaged with the crisis of modernity albeit from a conservative and classicist position which, has been widely misunderstood.

At the age of 14 after returning to the sprawling Chateau Grimaldi that her mother had purchased, Brooks found the flocked wallpaper and elaborate furniture of the rooms her mother had allocated to her intolerable.
She complained that the décor gChateau Grimaldiave her migraines and created a relentlessly screaming sensation in her skull.

Her solution was to cover the baroque patterned walls with gray paper, abolish the elaborately carved, gilded and upholstered chairs and other furniture and replaced them with simple oak tables and comfortable chairs. Creating harmonious modern spaces became a life-long obsession with her that she extended even to her first exhibition in 1910, wherein she covered the walls with a neutral colored material that allowed her paintings to show their individual character.

Throughout her long life she orchestrated her interiors and those of the friends who asked her to decorate their flats as meticulously as she styled her clothing and executed her portraits.