Romaine Brooks’s Villa in the hills of Florence is being restored. This is the place that she and her lover Natalie Barney suffered privations and constant threats of being sent off to an internment camp in Parma before deportation to a concentration camp because of being foreigners, and in Natalie’s case having Jewish blood during WWII.
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.
Romaine Brooks had a lifelong love affair with the storied isle of Capri. It began in the summer of 1898 when as a poor student she rented a cheap Gothic chapel to paint in, complete with a courtyard full of fig trees. She loved the island’s easygoing ways and swam daily in the sea off the rocks at the Bagno Timberino.
Sometime near the end of World War I, about a year after she and Natalie Barney became lovers, Romaine purchased the Villa Cercola in Capri. Foremost on her mind was escaping wartime and the sweltering heat of Paris summers, but she also needed to come to terms with the emotional storms she and Natalie were experiencing in settling their three-way marriage. She routinely visited the Roman ruins that brought so many tourists to the island. Naturally daring and athletic, she wasn’t daunted by the dangers that kept so many of them from swimming in the blue grotto.
That made her even more conspicuous, for an arresting beauty who regularly attracted the attention of other women. Faith MacKenzie (whom rumor has it Romaine bedded) wrote that “for the first time in my life I had met a woman so complete in herself and independent in her judgments that she could accept and reject people and things at will without guilt or hesitations.”
Lily de Gramont visited Romaine in the early 1920s and reported back to Natalie Barney that she enjoyed the view of Romaine sunning herself on the rocks, watched over by her current lover. Lily didn’t name names.
But it was already a familiar picture for Natalie Barney. In 1920 Natalie, despite her various ongoing flings, took pen in hand to express both her jealousy and insecurity, writing Romaine:
“I am alone and you are with her. I know you have not bathed without everyone on the island desiring you—that they would follow the glimmer of your perfect form to the ends of the earth – yet can any of them but me so grasp the inner goddess, the real sense of your greatness?”[i]
To learn more about the fascinating life of Romaine Brooks order Romaine Brooks: A Life.
:Langer, Cassandra (author).
REVIEW. First published August, 2015 (Booklist).
[i]. Natalie Clifford Barney to Romaine Brooks, July 21, 1920, Barney/Brooks Letters.
Gay Marriage is nothing new. Almost 100 years ago in 1916 when Romaine Brooks became so famously involved with Natalie Barney she accepted the fact that the love of her life had been lovers with her good friend–Elisabeth de Gramont, duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, since 1909.
Brooks and Barney had only been passionately involved for 18 months when Gramont reached the breaking point. Natalie made no distinction between the two great loves of her life. A lesbian crisis worthy of a Wagnerian opera occurred. Lily wrote Natalie a scathing letter, ending their relationship, and left Paris for Evian during a lull in the fighting.
Frantic, Natalie drafted a marriage proposal and pursued Lily hundreds of miles to get it signed. It is probably not the first gay marriage contract in history but it is certainly among the most startling and original between two lesbians.
Romaine and Natalie stayed together, although we don’t know how or when they solemnized their private vows. Romaine’s 1920 portrait of Natalie is one of the greatest wedding presents ever given by one lesbian to another. All three women accepted the fact that their marriages would not be monogamous. They would have to live independent lives. Nonetheless, their love for each other was so great, and Natalie’s sexual allure so magnetic, that all three remained loving partners for the rest of their lives until Lily’s death in 1954.
As we celebrate this 4th of July, Independence Day 2015, many people, gay and straight will be taking a page from this extraordinary playbook for pursuing life, liberty and happiness, understanding that a stable household is best achieved in a family made up of those you love and who love you.
Why should any of us care about family history?
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.
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.
I’ve heard her voice!
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.
Much has been made of heterosexist models of relationships as applied to gay and lesbian lives. Recent publications have done a lot to overturn these stereotypes of gender and relational norms. With the marriage debates and LGBTQ rights, the focus has been mainly on gaining equal rights through heterosexist institutions. This may be one reason so many members of the LGBTQ community are signing on to the idea of marriage, aberrant as it may seem.
Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont never signed on to the notion that women were somehow the property of men to use and abuse as they saw fit merely because they had the brute strength to subjugate women and possess them. Nor did they believe in laws that allowed men to oppress women. They believed women were superior to men and lived their lives in this belief.
Blue is the Warmest Color recently exploded off the screen, garnering a number of prizes and rave reviews. I just saw it and have to say it is a film that promised much and failed to deliver on these promises.
As a primer on lesbian sex, it’s fine for as far as it goes — which is not nearly far enough. It showcases a male perspective, with two women acting out a male notion of what lesbians do in bed. It’s not half bad, but it certainly in no way captures the true depth, playfulness, or sinuosities of lesbian love and sexual practices. It is shallow and surface despite all the huff and puff and penetration. What does come across is how focused on butt the film maker is. I wonder if he has been studying the nudes that artist Joan Semmel has been creating for the last 40 years or so.
Open, ongoing, multiple-partner relationships are what the trio above had. Committed, eternal, and flexible would best describe their interrelations. We need to realize that these three women did not have the right to vote, had more than enough money for multiple residences, and formed a unique series of linkages and entwined households during their lifetimes. This seriously impacts on how we relate to them and their times. I outline and flesh out more in my forthcoming book Romaine Brooks: A Life.