The Life of Romaine Brooks

Brooks, Romaine (1 May. 1874-7 December 1970), painter, graphic artist, interior designer, and writer, was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in a hotel room in Rome, Italy. She was the youngest of three children born to wealthy American parents Major Henry Goddard and Ella Waterman Goddard. In her unpublished autobiography, No Pleasant Memories (cir.1938), Brooks noted that she survived numerous attempts by her mother and others to annihilate her.

Abuse & Struggle

True or not, this gives us a glimpse into her interior world. Romaine’s heartbreaking narrative included abandonment by her father, being left by her mother at the age of six with a laundress in the slums of New York City, and then a four-year education at an Episcopal school before reuniting in London with her mother at the age of twelve. The family then traveled to Northern Italy, where she was enrolled in a prison-like Catholic convent and would attempt suicide. It is likely that her mentally ill older brother, St. Mar, sexually molested her. This abuse underlies her art and her feelings of vulnerability. It was against this background that Brooks studied art in Rome and later moved to Capri, where she lived on next to nothing and struggled to become an artist.

Taking the Brooks Name

When her older brother died in 1901, Romaine was forced to rejoin her mother. The following year, Ella died from diabetes, leaving her daughter a very wealthy woman. Romaine Goddard married the homosexual John Ellingham Brooks in 1902. The arrangement did not work out, so she closed her studio in Capri and escaped to London. She separated from Brooks and pensioned him off.

Finding a Home in Paris

In 1905, Romaine Brooks moved to Paris, bought an apartment on the Avenue Trocadero, and rented a large studio on the left bank. Her talent for music, art, and interior design brought her the patronage of important people. Brooks became infatuated with the Princess Edmond de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer) and her wonderful salon of musicians, artists, dancers, and writers. Around 1909, Brooks and Italian proto-fascist and man of action Gabriele d’Annunzio met at a dinner given by an artist friend who was famous for his colorful posters and paintings. D’Annunzio commented that much more can be expressed without any color at all, and this prompted Brooks to invite him to see her work. Thus began a complicated friendship that lasted for nearly three decades and had a profound impact on Brooks’s art.

Portraiture & Exhibition

In May of 1910,  Brooks had her first solo exhibition at Galleries Durand-Ruel in Paris. As a result of its success, the show (with the addition of three new paintings) traveled to the Goupil Gallery. That summer, Romaine rented a villa in Le Moulleau near Arcachon in the Aquitaine region on the Atlantic coast near Bordeaux. It was here that she made some sketches for a likeness of d’ Annunzio. After spending the winter in Paris, Brooks occupied a villa at St.-Jean-de-Luz and painted his portrait. In 1913, she was invited to send her paintings of Gabriele Annunzio, Le Poète en Exile (1912), Princesse Lucien Marat (1910), The Balcony (1911), and La Jaquette Rouge (1910) to the Prima Exposizione Internationale d’arte della Secessione in Rome.

Developing a Signature Style

In 1914, Brooks completed a self-portrait posed against a sea wall as a companion piece to her depiction of d’Annunzio. These two works marked the creation of what was to become her signature style. In this portrayal, Brooks emerged as a hero of her own making and a woman of action engaged in an aesthetic combat in an elite social and cultural world—a male-dominated world.   She began to make theorizing images, emphasizing a monochromatic palette of greys to convey the damping down her deepest emotions and her refusal to let them control her. Knowingly and shrewdly, she created a nebulously shifting palette of greys, metaphorically suggesting a blurring of gender.

Fighting Gender Norms

Brooks’s identification with the solitary individual defying bourgeoisie conformity stemmed from her affinity with the lapide (those stoned to death). Her deeply psychological readings generally portrayed an isolated figure posed against a background reflecting his or her social status and interests. These portrayals were as much portraits of the artist as they were of her sitters. They demonstrated Brooks’s need for control, as well as her co-opting of male authority. Moreover, they underscored her drive to excel in a masculine-dominated profession that she transformed by creating a feminized space for future female artists to carry forward.

Redefining Family

World War I began in the summer of 1914 while Brooks and her lover, the bisexual Russian-Jewish performance artist, Ida Rubinstein, were vacationing in Switzerland. They rushed home to Paris to join in the war effort. Brooks volunteered to drive a jeep and painted a heroic portrait of Ida entitled The Cross of France (1914). This and other services to France earned her the Legion of Honor. After she and Ida broke up, Brooks is reported to have begun a 49-year open relationship with the famed essayist and salonist, Natalie Clifford Barney. However, contrary to what has been accepted by Brooks scholars, the fact is that, at the time, Barney was lovers with Elisabeth de Gramont, Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre. Moreover, the three women became entwined in a committed and revolutionary form of open marriage in 1918. Brooks’s seemingly peripatetic movements make perfect sense when we connect them to Lily and Natalie’s travels. Although the trio lived in separate houses and had ongoing affairs with numerous interchangeable lovers, they considered themselves a committed linked household. This makes the assertion that Brooks was a loner with no family life totally misleading. Rather, she fully participated in the joyfulness of the family life they created together.

An Artistically Productive Period

From the 1920s through the late 1930s, Brooks continued painting portraits of the women in her circle, including Natalie and Lily,  Radclyffe Hall’s lover Una Troubridge, decorator Elsie de Wolfe, pianist Renata Borgatti, and the painter Gluck. While recuperating from an accident, she also began writing and illustrating her memoir, No Pleasant Memories.

War & Fascism

World War II broke out when Brooks was in her 60s, and she rushed home to Paris from New York, where she had taken a studio and was attending to family business. The war unleashed all Romaine’s old fears and insecurities. She and Barney fled to Florence, where they would remain for the duration of the war. Romaine’s relationship to Italian fascism was complex and ambiguous, and her d’Annunzio influenced aesthetics are foreshadowed in her second portrait of him [Il Commandante Gabriel d’Annnzio (1916)], which depicts him as a national hero.  Most art historians and critics shy away from this aspect of her art.

Many Endings

After the war ended, Brooks spent her time trying to rediscover her painter self, becoming more and more reclusive. Lily de Gramont died in in 1954, marking the end of the stable household that sustained both Brooks and Barney. In 1961 at the age of 87, Brooks painted one last great portrait of Duke Uberto Strozzi and then stopped painting. She and Natalie continued visiting one another even after Brooks bought an apartment in Nice. When Natalie, at the age of 79, took a new lover, Brooks did her best to adjust but could not. She became increasingly reclusive and isolated.

A Legacy Shrouded in Mystery

Brooks’s subsequent erasure from the history of art may be attributed to the fact that she was politically naive, a woman, a snobbish bigot, and an unrepentant lesbian. From the late 1950s to around 1967, when she formed a friendship with the painter, Edouard MacAvoy, Brooks lived a fairly circumscribed life and was no longer painting. In 1968, MacAvoy devoted a single issue of the Surrealist influenced Bizarre magazine to her work. Its publication was followed by a 1970 retrospective at the Smithsonian’s then National Museum of American Art that resulted in critical acclaim and a reconsideration of her work by biographers, art historians, and those interested in Women’s and Gay and Lesbian Studies. Subsequently, Brooks donated her papers, memoirs, and several important paintings to the museum. Much like Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Brooks has retained the status of a cult figure ever since.