Even I sometimes wonder but am consistently reminded why. As a biographer, researcher, art critic and writer, tedious as tracking these things can be, it’s worth the effort. A case in point is Romaine Brooks and her vague connection to the Bonapartes’ family tree. The question as to which branch comes up in her memoir and now — suddenly — in a Barney letter that is for sale on eBay. One path leads to another entirely.
Independent of the Bonaparte question, tracking down the connection becomes more interesting when you consider that it will establish a date for when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. It requires re-reading of other biographers to see if they are aware of the resulting dates. After that, there’s the cross-referencing of information as the pieces of various puzzles begin to fall into place. And then it’s back to re-checking my chronology of Brooks’ life to see if everything fits.
This is why the small details count in the larger picture of reconstructing a subject’s life and understanding how they lived it as much as anyone removed from a life can.
If you want to read a fictionalized adventure in biography, try Possession. For added enjoyment, see the film.
Stranger things have happened. I am not a regular troller on eBay but I do try to keep up with anything Romaine Brooks in the slim hope that something valuable for my research might show up. A couple of days after my talk at the Smithsonian, I saw an eBay auction for a portfolio of Romaine’s drawings — 70 of them!
As those of you who keep up with me and Romaine know, Suzanne Stroh and Jean-Loup Combemale recently completed a translation/transcription from the French of a 90-minute-long audio interview with Romaine. They determined that it was conducted as part of a planned series of interviews of which this is just one–and truncated at that. (We do not know where the rest of this recording is or where the others may have ended up. Add that to the “future research” list.) What we have determined is that the interview was completed in the summer of 1967 in Paris, perhaps at Natalie Barney’s home. Significantly, Romaine says that she “reworked” a series of drawings from her portfolios for the Smithsonian in conjunction with her upcoming exhibition there.
Could this portfolio be one of these? I contacted the bookseller, who is French. I’m working to track down the buyer and find out what his/her interest is, whether there is more Brooks information, and whether he/she is a collector of Brooks items. I am also trying to date and track the Barney letters from that eBay auction to determine exactly when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. The backstory on the items is intriguing, and as I discover more I will keep you updated.
Romaine Brooks: A Life is now in the pipeline and just awaiting copy editing. As the author, I must admit that it has been the journey of a lifetime. My take on Romain’s life and times is entirely new, based on fresh research coming out of France, as well as collections relating to her which other biographers may not have analyzed as closely as I have.
Networking across disciplines yielded fantastic connections that allowed for an unprecedented stage of fact-matching and checking. The process yielded a new and more fully nuanced reading of this fascinating woman’s artistic and daily life that was simply unavailable to earlier biographers, through no fault of their own.
Simply put, Romaine Brooks was not the psychologically challenged lesbian artist as which she has been portrayed by previous biographers.
My book paints a new — and, we now know, much more accurate — picture of her that refutes most of what has been written about Brooks and her art.
The new book also corrects many false impressions, most importantly that she was a fascist sympathizer and virulent anti-Semite. Reading her On The Hills Of Florence during the war and about the six years she and Natalie Barney (who was a quarter Jewish) makes her position as a conservative American living abroad much clearer than the simplistic and unexamined readings of her attitudes that have gone before.
All I can say is the evidence is now online from the Smithsonian institution for you to read for yourselves. What my book does is to contextualize this material in accord with Romaine’s life and choices to achieve a better understand her personality and thought processes.
Equally Intriguing is the true nature of her love life with Natalie Barney and her relationship to Lily de Gramont. I hope you will look forward to reading all about the fascinating Mrs. Brooks come 2015-16.
For those of you who will be in Washington November 20th I will be doing a talk for the Smithsonian fellows lunch time series at the Archives of American art. You are welcome to come at noon to the second floor conference room. Just present I’d and take the elevator to learn more about the Romaine we never knew and the missing works by her that we still need to rediscover and bring before the public. So stay tuned for more news.
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.
Hi, all! Just letting you know about a great online event put together by a colleague of mine. Please tune in for Suzanne’s site reopening on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at www.suzannestroh.com.
It’s a virtual party to celebrate the 137th birthday of expatriate arts patron Natalie Barney (1876-1972). A major reappraisal of Barney’s life and legacy is underway, led by the translation of Francesco Rapazzini’s biography of the woman Barney secretly married in 1918, author and sculptor Élisabeth de Gramont (1875-1954). Forty years after Barney’s death, her secret 1926 novel has finally been published in French. It details the household both women established with American painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970).
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.
This painting is by an unknown artist. One of our followers asked if I knew who painted it. I don’t.
Differentiating Brooks’s Work
I have to say (as I did to her), you have to see a Brooks painting face-to-face to really appreciate how subtle and sophisticated her surface application of paint was and how subtle the transitions between shades of grays are. She uses a tonal scale, so unless you can actually see the paintings in person, it is very difficult to translate from on-line or reproduction. The values are much richer.
This year the Ballet Russe is on the scene celebrating its centennial. Ida Rubenstein, Romaine’s lover, was a star of the ballet who electrified Paris with her sensational performances. The triangle that emerged between Romaine, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Ida was almost as spectacular as the opulent staging of the Ballet Russe’s Cleopatre and Scheherezade.
Brooks satirized the relationship by presenting D’Annunzio’s thwarted desires in this scathing parody after her breakup with D’Annunzio. Her revenge — she invited him to her studio to see the painting. We don’t know what transpired between the two of them; only that the friendship continued, albeit on a different basis, for the rest of their lives.
I go into this in much more depth and analysis in my forthcoming book, Romaine Brooks: A Life.
This page is dedicated to the lesbian expatriate artist Romaine Goddard Brooks (1874-1970). Brooks was the epitome of style and could give most fashion designers today cards and spades when it comes to understated elegance. She designed her own man-tailored clothinge and made everything in her life according to her singular tastes.
I am going to be presenting a talk on Romaine’s relationship with adventurer, man of letters and womanizer, Gabriele d’Annunzio, on Saturday. This takes place in Las Vegas at the Women and Fascism panel of the Modern Studies Association. I was invited by author Barbara Wills whose recent book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma has created a great stir among those devoted to feminist and queer studies, as well as among admirers of Stein’s modernism.
My own presentation deals with Romaine Brooks’ queer heroic portraits of women. I have written a couple of articles on these but this will be my first dedicated presentation detailing, however briefly, the connection between Romaine Brooks and Gabriele d’Annunzio and the impact that relationship had on her signature style.