Romaine Brooks – American Painter (1874-1970)
Romaine Brooks was born in 1874 as Beatrice Romaine Goddard to a wealthy and very dysfunctional American family. Her father left the family shortly after her birth and her mother abandoned her to the care of the family laundress and then later to a poor family in NYC while she travelled across Europe. Throughout her childhood Brooks was subjected to emotional abuse from her mother who made it very clear that she favored Brook’s mentally unstable older brother over her daughter. These experiences had a profound impact on Brooks in her adult life and with her artwork.
Brooks eventually left her abusive mother and brother in 1893. First to Paris where she worked in cabaret as a singer while living off the meager allowance from her mother and then later to Rome to pursue her studies in art. After some additional art studies in Paris, Brooks would settle for a few years in Capri and rent herself a small studio.
In 1901 her brother died and shortly afterwards her mother would also pass away as well, leaving a very surprised Brooks with a vast amount of wealth for her inheritance. Brooks would then use her new financial independence to live where she pleased, paint whatever she wanted and be herself. A new her was just around the corner.
In 1903 Brooks married her friend, the pianist John Ellingham Brooks, even though she was fully aware that he was gay. It is commonly believed that this was a marriage purely of convenience for the both of them. The marriage lasted less than a year. Almost immediately the couple began to quarrel, mostly over Brooks new appearance. She decided to cut her hair short and then ordered for her self a new wardrobe consisting of men’s clothing. Brooks husband would refuse to be seen in public with her when she was dressed in her new attire.
Eventually they would divorce and Brooks would decide to keep her married name ‘Brooks’ out of personal preference. She would also at this time drop her given name ‘Beatrice’ and for the rest of her life be known as Romaine Brooks.
Alone Brooks was now free to explore art on her own terms. She ignored the new popular art movements of her time, like cubism and fauvism, and instead took her artistic influence from the recently deceased artist James McNeill Whistler – famously known for his portrait of his mother and his muted color palette.
Brooks would paint mostly portraits of young nude women and aristocrats in an androgynous manner that she would become well known for. Her subjects were always painted alone, in muted colors within vague landscapes. Brooks would explore the topics of gender and sexuality with her art and for her exploration she can be cited as an influence for several contemporary artists who continue to explore similar themes.
In 1910 Brooks had her first solo exhibit of 13 paintings. Her body of work, which consisted of several self-portraits of herself depicted in typical “Aristocratic Male Dandy”, made it very clear to the public of her identity as a lesbian, though she did have occasional relations with a few men, specifically a brief affair with Italian writer, politician and life long friend – Gabriele D’Annunzio.
In 1911 Brooks would meet and begin a relationship with the famed Russian ballet dancer, Ida Rubenstein. The relationship would last for about three years and Rubenstein, who suited Brooks artistic aesthetic, would become one of Brooks favorite models for several years. Most of Brooks early important works, such as ‘Weeping Venus’ and ‘The Cross of France’, depicted Rubenstein.
“Cross of France” was painted at the beginning of the First World War and has been compared to Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading Her People”. Where as Delacroix depicts Liberty as a woman amongst the people marching into battle, Brooks Liberty is depicted as a stoic nurse standing in a heroic fashion as a French city burns in the background. The “Weeping Venus” was painted after the war and was meant to represent for Brooks as “the passing away of familiar gods”.
At the beginning of WWI Brooks met Natalie Barney, an American writer living in Paris, who she would spend the next 50 years with. They had a special house built for themselves to preserve their independence – two wings connected at the dinning room. The house was destroyed during the Second World War and the couple would flee to Italy. Brooks and Barney was not a monogamous couple, both had their fair share of affairs in the open. They would eventually separate in 1960 due to Brooks increasing desire for isolation and odd behavior.
Brooks would die in 1970, alone in Nice, France at the age of 96. She practically stopped painting around 1925 and made only one known portrait after the Second World War. In her final years she lived in complete isolation and would refuse company even from Barney.
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