A question has been puzzling me related to my latest book, forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press later this year. I’ve been wondering — when Lily confronted Natalie, how serious was she? They had been lovers for 9 years and Natalie had been helping to support Lily and her two daughters.
I recently received information confirming that, when Lily delivered her ultimatum to Natalie, demanding that she cut off her relationship with Romaine or suffer the loss of Lily in her life, she fled to the countryside.
This seemed almost impossible to imagine in a country that was at war. But a military historian has confirmed that it actually would have in fact been possible for Lily to travel because the German offensive hadn’t yet gotten fully underway. This also means that Natalie would have been able to chase after, and that the marriage contract between them might have been written en route, rather than in Paris.
You can read more details in my new book, Romaine Brooks: A Life, but a quick look at the map confirms the information I have been sent.
I am wondering where Romaine Brooks’ lost drawings and paintings are. There are so many intriguing clues scattered throughout her letters, papers, and last audio interview. We have reason to believe that somewhere out there are early works from the Capri period, as well as portraits and still-life pictures such as the one Freer bought from her when she was still painting in bright colors. And what of the drawings she refers to in her interview from late 1967 or 68? What were they of? Nudes of Natalie? Portrait sketches? We now know of works from only two periods, and yet she tells us she drew all the time, and Natalie Barney inquires in their exchange of letters whether she has been drawing to amuse herself.
Despite the many masks I have removed from Romaine, it seems as though even more mysteries remain for future researchers to discover.
On the train. About to read the David Bruce papers. Trying to track the sale of Romaine’s Paris apartment to try and get some idea as to who was in charge and what was involved. Following up on real estate is one way of tracking down elusive information, especially when regulations thwart scholarship by keeping you from seeing foreign wills. I hope this changes, along with a number of other obstacles that biographers and scholars face when trying to shine light on subjects who have made it into the limelight of posterity.
Today, a writer’s life requires a lot of time, money, energy, and determination, along with a bloodhound’s nose and determination to stay on the trail.
I’ve just returned from listening to a long-lost analog recording of an interview with Romaine Brooks at age 94. What a fabulous experience! It’s in French, but is being transcribed in English through the generosity of another researcher, translator Suzanne Stroh. What an incredible thrill to finally hear Romaine’s voice! I now understand why she was celebrated for her speaking voice. She spoke French with what people said was a “charming American accent”, and it is perfectly clear that despite living in Europe — mainly France and Italy for most of her adult life — she always thought and titled her drawings in English in her notebooks.
In the interview, she was asked if she’d created drawings other than those that appeared in the 1968 issue of Bizarre — an issue devoted entirely to her with essays by Paul Morand, Eduard MacAvoy, Michel Desbrueres. She responded, “I’ve drawn throughout my life.” So, folks, where are the other drawings??? We only have access to a sampling from two periods of her lifelong output. Where are the rest??? We really don’t know. Did she destroy them? What would they have looked like? Was her style consistent? Much like Frida Kahlo, Brooks is on the threshold of a total reassessment. Who knows what works may still be out there?
Treasure hunters, unite. We need to ferret out her other works.
Here you see Lily de Gramont and Natalie Barney on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, just prior to returning to France where they united with Romaine Brooks to form the stable three-way family of choice that lasted until Lily’s death in 1954. Who knew?! (Romaine Brooks: A Life tells all!)
FYI: I will be on a panel at the International Biography Conference to present new information on Romaine Brooks that will turn Romaine Brooks studies on their head.
People keep asking me about my forthcoming Romaine Brooks book. I am doing some tweaks in light of startling new information about her personal relationships that came to light while I was working to determine the proper copyrights issues.
My book contrasts Brooks’ work with the political, social, and interpersonal environment within which Brooks painted, whether during war, while living separately, in communal houses with her partners (who included Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont), or during her prime years as a socialite in Paris. Romaine Brooks: A Life proceeds chronologically through Brooks’ works and the documented interactions with both her subjects and her peers to persuasively emphasize her struggles and change the current perception of Romaine Brooks. Here is the key to finally restoring Brooks to the history of American and International art that is her rightful place in the development of art. Although a conservative modernist in her chosen artistic style, content, and approach, she was decidedly modernist in that she documented a lesbian and bi-sexual subculture. She also applied a new musicality to her work, developing a unique approach to both monochromatic harmonies and tonal scale in her use of paint and its application to the canvas.
Recognition of Brooks for the originality and quality of her work, as well as for her courage in demanding to be seen, is long overdue. My book establishes once and for all how important and innovative her contributions to art were. I firmly believe that, had she not been a conservative modernist, expatriate, and sapphist-lesbian, she would not have been neglected as she has been. Much work remains to be done clarifying the details of Romaine’s life and art. It is my hope that a new and younger generation of scholars will take up the mantle where I have left off.
I never started out as a biographer. It was always about how I took in the picture before me, tasted it, rolled it over, let it sit in my sensorium, and savored all its flavor — appreciating the artistry of the maker; composition, color, execution, emotions. In short, I was able to follow along when an artist grabbed me with just one look and took me to places both familiar and strange.
From childhood, even as a small toddler, I’ve had this uncanny ability to experience words and pictures in the most intense way. It was one of these experiences (as I write in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life (forthcoming from University of Wisconsin press in 2015) that set me on a 44-year course of investigation. I left me with a need to know so intense that throughout my academic and teaching career I felt compelled to follow the elusive trail that Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) had forged.
An Intriguing Subject…and Audience
It began with the first scholarly/critical article to be written in America on Brooks’s intriguing, chromatically painted portraits. I followed up with a lecture that garnered the attendance of an ACLU representative from Florida International University. This was, after all, the early 1970s, and I was an out lesbian dealing with an out subject and painter of lesbian and gay subjects. Over the years I continued to write critical commentary on any Brooks articles and/or essays that appeared.
Finally, in 2000, after reading yet another essay sidestepping the problems of Brooks’s complicated relationship with D’Annunzio and right-wing conservative politics of the period, my frustrations propelled me to deal with the issue head-on. I then published two more articles to set the framework for an in-depth look at Romaine’s fascist aesthetics in my new book.
Thus, the Accidental Biographer
In order to unearth the truth of Romaine’s life, I had to become an accidental biographer. That determination set me on a course I never intended to take. If you truly want to understand the real nature of the biographer’s art, you’ll have to read my introduction as to how this studio/art history/philosophy student was compelled to become a reluctant biographer by default.
Right now, my brain is burnt out. Just when I thought I had completed the manuscript for my forthcoming book, Romaine Brooks: A Life, I stumbled across a treasure trove of primary source documentation that is a game changer. The Chinese were right. I had always wished I could solve some vexing questions about Brooks’ last years because so many riddles still remained. Now that I have turned over the rock, I am entangled in what lies beneath. Tune in for more in the adventures of a scribbler.