Romaine Brooks - Androgyny, Feminism and Anguish

Romaine Brooks (born Beatrice Romaine Goddard; 1874 – 1970) was an American painter who worked mostly in Paris and Capri. She is best known for her images of women in androgynous or masculine dress, including her self-portrait of 1923 (below), which is her most widely reproduced work. She was a lesbian and a strong women's rights advocate.

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"In this painting, Romaine Brooks portrayed herself in the dark colors of a man’s outfit, her eyes veiled under the shadow of her hat brim. Brooks lived most of her life in Paris, where she crafted an androgynous appearance that challenged conventional ideas of how women should look and behave. The shadowed face in this portrait suggests that her true self is hidden behind a carefully constructed façade. The tiny flash of red on Brooks’s lapel represents the ribbon of the Legion of Honor she received for her artistic achievements, but it might also hint at the secret passions of her personal life."

Brooks specialized in portraiture and used a subdued tonal palette keyed to the color gray. She 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. 

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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.

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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 Italian writer and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio, Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and her partner of more than 50 years, writer Natalie Barney.

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Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) was born in Rome, the youngest of three children of wealthy Americans Ella (Waterman) Goddard and Major Henry Goddard. Her maternal grandfather was a multi-millionaire, Isaac S. Waterman, Jr. Her parents divorced when she was small, and her father abandoned the family. Brooks was raised in New York by her unstable mother, who abused her emotionally while doting on her mentally ill brother, St. Mar.

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From an early age, Brooks had to tend to her mentally ill brother, St. Mar, because he attacked anyone else who came near him. There is speculation St. Mar may have sexually molested her and that this abuse underlies her art and her feelings of vulnerability.

According to her memoir, when she was seven, her mother fostered her to a poor washerwoman's family living in a New York City tenement, then disappeared and stopped making the agreed-upon payments. The impoverished family continued to care for Brooks and she was reunited with her family after years.

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Brooks' New York City exile ended when her Grandfather Waterman sent for her to his house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. 

After leaving school, Romaine joined her family in London. Life was chaotic as they traveled around Europe with a large retinue of servants, a resident doctor, and 22 trunks. The family then traveled to Italy, where her mother enrolled her in a prison-like medieval Catholic convent where she apparently attempted suicide. 

In her unpublished memoirs, No Pleasant Memories, Brooks bitterly recollects the fear and rejection that made her childhood a "gothic nightmare."

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"His particular madness, however, seemed mild compared with the more exacting and autocratic madness of my mother..."

No Pleasant Memories, Romaine Brooks.

Personal life

After her mother died in 1902 (shortly after her brother), Brooks became an enormously wealthy woman. She inherited an apartment in Paris, eight apartments around France, and the family home, Château Grimaldi, plus trunks of clothes, furs and linens, and a small fortune in coins. She knew that "the simple, almost monastic life … was now over."

Despite being a lesbian, on June 13, 1903, Brooks married her friend John Ellingham Brooks, an unsuccessful pianist and translator who was in deep financial difficulty.

John was homosexual (the character in writer Somerset Maugham's The Lotus Eater was based on John Brooks, Maugham's friend and lover, who came to Capri as part of an exodus of homosexuals from England in the wake of Oscar Wilde's conviction, in 1895, for 'acts of gross indecency').

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Brooks 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.

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Chafing at his desire for outward propriety, she left him after only a year and moved to London. His repeated references to "our" money had frightened her, as the money was her inheritance and none of it his. After they split, she continued to give John Brooks an allowance of three hundred pounds a year. He lived comfortably on Capri until he died of liver cancer in 1929.

"Insult and wound in me the friend, mistress and woman—I can take it—but I beg you, don't insult my art."

—Romaine Brooks

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In 1909, she met Gabriele D'Annunzio and engaged in a love affair. Among her other lovers are Ida Rubinstein, the Princess de Polignac, and the American writer, Natalie Barney. Natalie and Romaine were involved for fifty years, despite Barney's various affairs and other lovers. They shared a home with two separate wings.

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During World War II, Romaine Brooks and Barney fled to Italy, where Brooks remained after the war ended. Her later life was marked with self-imposed isolation, even refusing to see Barney. Romaine Brooks died in 1970 in Nice, France.

Sources: The Art of Romaine Brooks, 2016 + Wikipedia + American National Biography + Smithsonian.
*Link to Smithsonian article on Brooks. 
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