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Romaine Brooks

Romaine Goddard Brooks (1874 – 1970)

Embodying the image of the “third sex” or woman trapped in a man’s body in her androgynous female portraits, Romaine Brooks was an American citizen who spent most of her life in Paris fleeing from the physical abuse of her mother and insanity of her brother. Her early life was detailed in her unpublished autobiography No Pleasant Memories.

Many of the subjects of Brooks portraits including her own self portrait (Smithsonian American Art Museum) were shown in tuxedoes with pinched faces and in colors of grey, black, and white. Her work was part of the new, daring image of the 20th-century woman no longer in the shadow of men.

She was born into a wealthy family, and her parents divorced before her birth. In 1899, she took off for art school, studying briefly at the Scuola Nazionale in Rome and the Academie Colarossi in Paris, two of the few schools that would admit women. Later she stayed on the Isle of Capri, becoming part of the Anglo-American expatriate community and the island’s growing gay culture.

In 1902, her mother and brother died, and she inherited a large fortune that allowed her much personal freedom, which was unique for a woman of that time. She lived in London, and when she determined to become an artist, she moved to Paris, becoming part of the Left Bank community.

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.

Biography from the Archives of AskART