1874-05-01

ROMAINE BROOKS (born Beatrice Romaine Goddard; December 7, 1970) was an American painter born on this date (d: 1970) who worked mostly in Paris and Capri. She specialized in portraiture and used a subdued tonal palette keyed to the color gray. Brooks ignored contemporary artistic trends such as Cubism and Fauvism, drawing on her own original aesthetic inspired by the works of Charles Conder, Walter Sickert, and James McNeill Whistler. Her subjects ranged from anonymous models to titled aristocrats. She is best known for her images of women in androgynous or masculine dress, including her self-portrait of 1923, which is her most widely reproduced work.

Brooks had an unhappy childhood after her alcoholic father abandoned the family; her mother was emotionally abusive and her brother mentally ill. By her own account, her childhood cast a shadow over her whole life. She spent several years in Italy and France as a poor art student, then inherited a fortune upon her mother’s death in 1902. Wealth gave her the freedom to choose her own subjects. She often painted people close to her, such as the Italian writer and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and her partner of more than 50 years, the writer Natalie Barney.

Although she lived until 1970, it is erroneously believed that she painted very little after 1925; despite evidence to the contrary. She made a series of drawings during the 1930s, using an “unpremeditated” techniques predating automatic drawing. She spent time in New York City in the mid 1930s, completing portraits of Carl Van Vechten and Muriel Draper. Many of her works are unaccounted for, but photographic reproductions attest to her ongoing artwork. It is thought to have culminated in her 1961 portrait of Duke Uberto Strozzi.

Despite being a lesbian, on June 13, 1903, Goddard married her friend John Ellingham Brooks, an unsuccessful pianist and translator who was in deep financial difficulty. He was gay as well, and Goddard never revealed exactly why she married him. Her first biographer Meryle Secrest suggests that she was motivated by concern for him and a desire for companionship, rather than the need for a marriage of convenience. They quarreled almost immediately when she cut her hair and ordered men’s clothes for a planned walking tour of England; he refused to be seen in public with her dressed that way. Chafing at his desire for outward propriety, she left him after only a year and moved to London. His repeated references to “our” money frightened her, as the money was her inheritance and none of it his. After they split, she continued to give Brooks an allowance of three hundred pounds a year. He lived comfortably on Capri, with E. F. Benson, until he died of liver cancer in 1929.

Brooks left St. Ives on the Cornish coast where she had lived for a number of years, and moved to Paris. Poor young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were creating new art in the Bohemian districts of Montparnasse and Montmartre. In contrast, Brooks took an apartment in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, mingled in elite social circles, and painted portraits of wealthy and titled women. These included her current lover, the Princess de Polignac.

In 1911, Brooks became romantically involved with the Ukrainian-Jewish actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein. Rubenstein was the rock star of her day; and caused quite a stir by appearing with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. D’Annunzio had an obsessive but unrequited attraction to Rubinstein as well. Rubinstein was deeply in love with Brooks; she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they could live together—a mode of life in which Brooks had no interest.

Although they broke up in 1914, Brooks painted Rubinstein more often than any other subject; for Brooks, Rubinstein’s “fragile and androgynous beauty” represented an aesthetic ideal. The earliest of these paintings are a series of allegorical nudes. In The Crossing (also exhibited as The Dead Woman), Rubinstein appears to be in a coma, stretched out on a white bed or bier against a black void variously interpreted as death or floating in spent sexual satisfaction on Brooks’ symbolic wing; in Spring, she is depicted as a pagan Madonna strewing flowers on the ground in a grassy meadow. When Rubinstein starred in D’Annunzio’s play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Brooks painted her as a blonde Saint Sebastian—tied to a post, being shot with an arrow by a masked dwarf standing on a table. The dwarf is a satiric representation of D’Annunzio.

At the beginning of World War I, Brooks painted The Cross of France, a symbolic image of France at war, showing a Red Cross nurse looking off to the side with a resolute expression while Ypres burns in the distance behind her. Although it is not a portrait of Rubinstein, it does resemble her, and she may have modelled for it. It was exhibited along with a poem by D’Annunzio calling for courage and resolution in wartime, and later reproduced in a booklet sold to raise funds for the Red Cross. After the war, Brooks received the cross of the Legion of Honor for her fundraising efforts.
 

The longest and most important relationship of Brooks’ life was her three-way partnership with Natalie Clifford Barney, an American-born writer, and Lily de Gramont, a French aristocrat. She formed a trio with them that lasted the rest of their lives.

Barney was notoriously non-monogamous, a fact that the other two women had to accept. Brooks met Barney in 1916, at a time when the writer had already been involved for about seven years with Duchess Elisabeth de Gramont, also known as Lily or Elisabeth de Clermont-Tonnerre. She was married and the mother of two daughters. After a brief dust-up that resulted in Barney’s offering Gramont a marriage contract while at the same time refusing to give up Brooks, the three women formed a stable lifelong triangle in which none was a third wheel. Gramont, one of the most glamorous taste-makers and aristocrats of the period, summed up their values when she said, “Civilized beings are those who know how to take more from life than others.” Gender fluidity and sexual freedom were paramount among women of Brooks’ circle. Barney hosted a literary salon on Paris’s Left Bank.

Brooks tolerated Barney’s casual affairs well enough to tease her about them, and had a few of her own over the years. She could become jealous when a new love became serious. Usually she simply left town, but at one point she gave Barney an ultimatum to choose between her and Dolly Wilde—relenting once Barney had given in. At the same time, while Brooks was devoted to Barney, she did not want to live with her full-time. She disliked Paris, disdained Barney’s friends, and hated the constant socializing on which Barney thrived. She felt most fully herself when alone. To accommodate Brooks’s need for solitude, the women built a summer home consisting of two separate wings joined by a dining-room, which they called Villa Trait d’Union, the “hyphenated villa”. Brooks spent part of each year in Italy or traveling elsewhere in Europe, away from Barney. The relationship lasted for more than 50 years.