Mainly a portraitist, Romaine Brooks achieved renown for subdued paintings of defiantly androgynous women often attired in traditionally male clothing.
The artist donated many works to the Smithsonian American Art Museum where they remain in the permanent collection.
The painter’s alcoholic father deserted the family when Romaine was little more than a baby. That left her and two siblings, one with serious mental health issues, in the care of a wealthy but unstable and emotionally abusive mother. Stories of the artist’s childhood cast her mother as Wicked Stepmother to Romaine’s Cinderella.
At the age of 19, Romaine Goddard fled America to study art in Paris. She later moved to Capri in the Gulf of Naples, surviving on a meagre allowance. Capri was home to numerous American and English gays who sought refuge there following the 1895 Oscar Wilde trial.
In 1902, Romaine’s mother died and the near-starving artist inherited lots and lots and lots of money. At 28, and independently wealthy, she was free to live, and paint, as she chose.
Although a lesbian, Romaine Goddard married gay English pianist John Ellingham Brooks. One of Capri’s Wildean expatriates, Brooks preferred life on the down-low. His wife’s decision to crop her hair and purchase male clothing for an English holiday unsettled him so she left for England by herself, marriage over. However, she’d acquired a surname she preferred to her own and British citizenship. So, Mrs Brooks granted her husband an annual allowance which enabled him to live comfortably on Capri with his male lover for the rest of his life.
Princesse de Polignac
While in England, Romaine Brooks discovered and refined the almost monochromatic palette she would favour all her life. Crossing the channel and returning to France, she painted subtle, grey studies of wealthy and aristocratic Parisien women. Women like her lover, Princesse de Polignac, American heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. The Princess’s title came from a ‘lavender marriage’ to an older gay prince whose granny was bosom buddies with Marie Antoinette. (You couldn’t make this shit up.) The marriage was a huge success and reportedly immensely satisfying to both. The Prince and Princess enjoyed extremely active sex lives, her with women, him with men, and never the twain shall meet. It worked.
Romaine Brooks later began an affair with the beautiful Ukrainian-Jewish actress/dancer Ida Rubinstein. Ida sat for many of Romaine’s paintings, the dancer’s ‘fragile and androgynous beauty’ perfect for the painter’s palette. Ida Rubinstein even posed for a study of St Sebastian, tied naked to a post. The Italian politician and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, with whom Brooks had a long love/hate relationship, is portrayed as a ridiculous short person, standing on a stool to shoot an arrow at the about-to-be-martyred gay icon.
In 1916, Romaine Brooks met author Natalie Clifford Barney, then in a seven-year-long relationship with the Duchess Elisabeth de Gramont. The three became a throuple, a relationship which, though unbound by strictures of exclusivity, lasted a lifetime.
Queer heroic portraits of women
Meanwhile, Brooks dressed her models in masculine attire, a coded celebration of sapphism for those in the know. Members of the general public innocent of lesbianism presumably dismissed the transgressive narrative as mere fashion. Brooks never shied away from the gender ambiguity inherent in her work, titling a painting of a boyish female friend, Peter, a Young English Girl. Art historian Cassandra Langer, author of Romaine Brooks: A Life, described her paintings as ‘queer heroic portraits of women’.
Protected from the need to earn a living, Romaine Brooks painted exactly what she wanted, immune to the vicissitudes of public taste or the whims of potential buyers.
“I grasped every occasion no matter how small, to assert my independence of views.”
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