Romaine Brooks

self-portraits
Romaine Brooks

(1874-1970) Romaine Brooks was born Romaine Mary Goddard on May 1, 1874, in Rome, Italy. In 1905, after leaving her husband with a generous annuity, Brooks cut her hair, donned men's clothes and returned to Paris, where she began painting the portraits for which she became renowned. Her inherited wealth freed her from the need to please her sitters: she didn't care whether she sold her works or not. Her uncanny ability to depict the truth in people's appearances led her to be called "the thief of souls." A famous anecdote tells that one fashionable lady complained, upon seeing her portrait, "You have not beautified me," to which Brooks replied, "No, but I have ennobled you."

Romaine Brooks In 1915 Brooks met and fell in love with the writer and salon patroness Natalie Barney, and they began a relationship that would last for fifty years. Together they collaborated on a novel, The One Who Is Legion, or A.D.'s After-Life, which was privately printed in London in 1930 with illustrations by Brooks. Over the years Brooks painted many of the famous lesbian habitues of Barney's salon, including Barney as an Amazon and Lady Una Trowbridge, lover of Radclyffe Hall. Many thought the Lady Una portrait cruel, but then Brooks hadn't been particularly flattered by Hall's depiction of her as the artist Venetia Ford in the novel The Forge.

In 1920, Brooks was awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor from the French government. Never particularly fond of the salon life, during the mid-1920's Brooks withdrew from the fashionable world of Parisian society. She and Barney built a house together near Beauvallon--actually, two separated houses connected by a common dining room. They called it the Villa Trait d'Union, the "hyphenated villa," and this architectural detail tells us much about their relationship: they were often physically apart but emotionally connected, despite Barney's many affairs over the years.

 

A page listing more Romaine Brooks sites

  • excerpt from AskArt.com bio Although many of her peers were doing abstract art, she held to a representational style, exploring the subject of female identity within European social circles. She was especially intrigued by the role that external appearances of dress and manners played in sexual identity.
  • In 1910, she had a solo exhibition of her work in the prestigious Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris, and several of the subjects of her portraits in that exhibit were socially elite people of Paris. Her work was boldly erotic for that time, especially for a woman. In 1911, she began a three-year relationship with Ida Rubinstein, a Russian dancer whom she also used as a model. By the 1920s, she was living with Natalie Barney, American poet and expatriate, and the two held forth in the literary salon that made both women famous. Many of the women who attended these salons became subjects of Brooks' paintings.
  • By 1925, she had had major exhibitions of her work in New York, Paris, and London, and had become prominent among European and New York society. But after these shows and the ensuing attention she received, she became increasingly reclusive, devoting herself much more to drawing than painting and to writing her memoirs. She eventually retreated to her home in southern France where she lived to age 96, dying in 1970. She had never made much effort to gain exposure in the United States, but with the encouragement of Barney, she had sent many paintings and drawings to the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. In 1971, a retrospective of her work was held there. In 2000, a major retrospective of her work was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC.



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Updated May 5th, 2001
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