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Romaine Brooks

American Painter

Romaine Brooks Photo
Movements and Styles: Aesthetic Art, Symbolism, Surrealism

Born: May 1, 1874 - Rome, Italy

Died: December 7, 1970 - Nice, France

"I grasped every occasion no matter how small to assert my independence of views. I refused to accept the slavish traditions in art, and, though aware it would shock I insisted on marking the sex-triangles of all my female nude figures. The traditional depilatory effect shocked me, and I discarded it altogether."

Romaine Brooks Signature

Summary of Romaine Brooks

Romaine Brooks was part of the first generation of revolutionary and openly bohemian female artists. As a practicing artist pre-first World War, this was a moment in history when women did not have the right to vote and as such did not have the due respect or the same opportunities as men. The way to succeed at the time, or perhaps simply to be noticed was to mimic masculine appearance and to renounce femininity for all of its restriction and expectation. Thus many of Brook's notable paintings depict androgynous figures, out in the world infused with heroism and purpose rather than bound and hidden by domesticity. In this respect Brooks' struggle to be free has much in common with her English contemporary, the writer, Virginia Woolf. Both women resolutely fought for independence in mind and finance, and understood that their dedicated artistic pursuit came at great price; Woolf famously committed suicide and although Brooks lived to the glorious age of 96, she tragically titled her lifetime memoirs No Pleasant Memories.

Key Ideas

Brooks established a signature palette of soft and subdue grey. Her work is thus similar in tone and comparable to that of her fellow American (and fellow émigré to Europe), James McNeill Whistler. On the one hand, the absence of color in Brooks' paintings could stand as a mark of melancholy; the shadow that she says had been cast over her life since childhood. However another plausible influence is the invention and subsequent increase in use of photography; at this point photography was executed only in black and white and variant hews of grey, and like the pictures of Brooks, the new medium sought to successfully illuminate the spirit of the sitter.
Brooks contributed to many significant art movements and trends in thinking at the time. Her intense interest in portraiture supported the emerging study of psychoanalysis, a practice whereby individual identity for the first time was scrutinized. In the same tone, Surrealism sought to expose and illustrate unconscious fear in a way that Brooks pre-figures in her drawings on paper. Furthermore, as Brooks places great importance on the depiction of restrained beauty, and like William Morris extends her art to an interest in interior design, she is also a key figure working in the realms of Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts. Her relationship with this movement is not clear-cut however, for although attracted by the sensual, Brooks subtlety infuses beautiful pictures with social and political content.
Like fellow artists, Rosa Bonheur and Claude Cahun, Brooks lived the majority of her adult life entwined in romantic relationships with other women. As such she has become a pioneer and icon for same sex relationships. Since feminist scholarship has become more widespread the oeuvre of Brooks had been re-visited, re-invigorated, and better understood. She is now quite rightly credited as a leading figure and shining light guiding a major shift towards gender and sexual equality in the twentieth century.
Romaine Brooks Photo

Romaine Brooks was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard to an affluent American family whose wealth was derived from her mother, Ella Waterman's family mining fortune. Sadly, this financial security did nothing to prevent a miserable childhood. The youngest of three children, Brooks' father left shortly after she was born and her mother focused all her love and attention on the artist's brother, St. Mar. Mental illness was prevalent in the family and greatly affected her mother and her brother, both of whom were tormented by imaginary voices. When her cousin committed suicide, her mother told her young daughter that she had seen the cousin's ghost. This traumatized Brooks to the extent that she started to create disturbing drawings that featured spirits. Of her childhood, she stated, "My earliest recollection...is an immense impression of fear."

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