Plus ça change

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.

NatalieImageProxyNLV8N5FE
Romaine Brooks painted this portrait of Natalie Barney in 1920, in the year after Natalie and Elisabeth de Gramont returned from their wedding trip to America. Romaine’s portrait of Lily de Gramont, painted around 1923, hung in Natalie’s house for the rest of their lives. Brooks and Barney were also together for life from the moment they met in 1916.

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.

Romaine Brooks in the News

Romaine Brooks as she was coming into her own as a painter, but before she met any of the great loves of her life.
Romaine Brooks as she was coming into her own as a painter, but before she met any of the great loves of her life.

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.”

Priscilla Frank

Brava!

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.

Romaine Brooks - Book

Genealogy

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.

The manuscript is awaiting copy editing

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.

Where are the lost works?

So much is hidden
Always one for secrets

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.

Revelations in Gay and Lesbian history

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.

Here is the book you must read
Here is the book you must read

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.

Inspired by Romaine Brooks

Unknown artist
Unknown artist

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.

Be Careful What You Wish For

 

ImageRight 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.

Newly found portraits

ImageImageSurfing the net is something I do randomly. It’s like a treasure hunt for me. You never know what people will post. One of my favorite sites is Strange Flowers, and it was there that I recently came across some images of Romaine Brooks from 1925 that I have never seen before so.

I am thinking of using one of them in my forthcoming biography of Brooks.

What do you think?