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.
Interior of a flat Romaine formerly lived in during her stay in London in the 1920s when Una Troubridge posed for her in a costume of her own choosing leading to the supposition that Romaine had satirized her testy friend.
Romaine characteristically depicted what she saw and knew of Una who could turn on a dime if offended by someone. The duality of Una’s character was forcefully captured by Romaine in her 1924 portrait now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.
Try to imagine Romaine’s famous palette of grays in this appealing space and how she might have decorated it. Check out my book to get some idea of how bold and audacious yet subtle her color scheme would have been. Architectural Digest eat your heart out! I can imagine the charcoals, mauves grays and teal grays all subtly blended with touches of silver in the frames of her favorite foil leaf mercury. And huge charcoal drawings on blue or gray paper such as those that adorned her studio in the Carnegie Hall building in the 1930s.
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.
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.
A terrific and timely interview with me in Ms. Magazine by Mary Meriam.
Sexual politics are alive and flourishing in the GOP presidential race and in the current debates regarding Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the office. So having independent women like Romaine Brooks and her circle, having their say about real women’s lives and creativity is a blessing.
Romaine’s circle of women and lesbians forged their own notions of a room of one’s own, in their case several houses and shared households, as well as space to spread their creative wings wide. Their notions of how to live authentic lives are much more contemporary than they have previously been given credit for.
Not everyone will want to emulate their lifestyle, but we have to give them full credit for demanding one given the limitations placed on women during the interwar period and beyond.
Wishing each and every one of you Brooks fans a very happy holiday and a good New Year. Let’s lift a glass to our girl.
2015 has been a banner year for all things Romaine. After 40 plus years of on and off energy devoted to rediscovering the real Romaine Brooks my new book completely revises how the artist and woman is seen. I count myself very happy to finally see this critical biography in print. Be sure to catch our recent panel of November 12 on the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City web site.
As an added bonus a spectacular show of Romaine Brooks’s work opened on my birthday, December 18, at the Fortuny Museum in Venice, Italy. It is a groundbreaking showcasing her many faceted talents as a world class artist, designer and stylist. All points my new book Romaine Brooks: A Life highlights. I am happy to report that the show has been so successful that its run has been extended past its original closing date. More good news is that the catalog is being translated from the Italian into English.
Put June 10, 2016 on your calendar, when The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. opens an exhibition of Romaine’s works from their collection. My biography will be available for purchase in their book store. So Brooks fans, let’s celebrate and keep these dates in mind for the coming year.
Romaine, Brooks, Natalie Barney and most especially Lily de Gramont would all be standing tall with France and saying give life a chance while defending Paris with all their hearts and might.
For those of us that stand for life, love and liberty today is a day of mourning for all the innocents who have been heartlessly killed by pure evil. The streets of Paris are running with blood.
There is absolutely no excuse for these murders. Anyone celebrating them is part of the problem, not the solution. For love of life, Nous Sommes Unis!
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.
What an engaging take on Romaine Brooks by Priscilla Frank in today’s Huffington Post entitled “Meet Romaine Brooks, A 20th Century Artist Who Paved The Way for The 21st Century Lesbian.”
My new book will alert scholars to misinformation in the outdated materials Frank relied on.
That being said, I loved Priscilla Frank’s conclusion:
“Today, the slipperiness of sexual preference and gender identity–and identity in general–often pops up in relevant contemporary art. However, during Brooks’ lifetime, the fact that a woman could be an object of female desire, or that she could be completely uninterested in being the object of male desire, was rarely visualized or communicated. Brooks changed that — and, with those same brushstrokes, helped to change the history of art and gender equality.”
Romaine’s sultry femininity is strikingly evident in her 1908 photograph that perhaps explains her allure for both sexes and her unique style that Frank underscores in her post.
My book will finally be published in September, when readers will discover a Romaine Brooks they never knew. Beyond biography, it’s also a critical study of her work.
Meanwhile, it’s satisfying to see this great American artist finally getting the attention she deserves.