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.
- 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.
Biography of Romaine Brooks
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."
Important Art by Romaine Brooks
Painted primarily in a palette of muted brown, grey, and cream, Brooks' painting features a slight nude young woman reclining on a large sofa. Reviews of the work written at the time compared the work to Francisco de Goya's La maja desnuda and Édouard Manet's Olympia, but whilst the sitters in these paintings look directly at the viewer, the woman here gazes out into the distance. The crucial difference is that this woman is seen and painted by another woman, not by a man. As such the woman does not appear sexually available in the same way (even though Brooks may indeed be physically attracted to her). She is lost in thought and dream. As the little ship paintings above her seem to suggest, she imagines that which is elsewhere, far away, and waiting to be found on the horizon.
This painting is a strong example of Brooks' early work. While she often focused on women as her main subjects, at the beginning of her career depictions lacked the intimate qualities embedded in her later portraits, which were almost always of lovers and friends. This painting is a somewhat less personal representation of a nude model. Simply by being a woman painting a nude woman was a rare occurrence however, and such reveals the artist's modern forward thinking whilst furthermore achieving an exhilarating sense of breaking taboos. According to writer, Joe Lucchesi, "the subject was highly unusual for a female artist, and the particular erotic charge of White Azaleas was virtually unknown in the work of contemporary female artists." That the artist was aware of the provocative nature of such a subject and her desire to push boundaries within the art world was asserted when she stated, "I grasped every occasion no matter how small to assert my independence of views. I refused to accept slavish traditions in art, and though aware it would shock, I insisted on marking the sex-triangles of all my female nude figures...."
The painting also importantly highlights Brooks' early association with the Symbolism art movement and especially the influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Historian Whitney Chadwick describes how in this painting the woman becomes a key item, "...in carefully arranged still-lives that evoke the melancholy and morbid eroticism of the symbolist poets. As in Whistler's Nocturnes, 1870s, feelings are evoked rather than declared. Mood emerges from subtle modulations of a palette mostly limited to ochre, gray, umber, and black, relieved only by the splashes of white produced by a floral arrangement...."
A nude woman, lying on her back, arms and legs relaxed and outstretched at her sides, with long black hair flowing behind her, appears to float in a dark void across the top half of The Crossing. It is as though the figure rests on a wing or upon a delicate cloud and it remains ambiguous if she is living, or has died. Is she "crossing" to the afterlife? There is a strong sense of expressionist drama at play here and the paintings of Edvard Munch at once comes to mind as well as the metaphysical imagination of the artist and poet, William Blake.
The model is Brooks' lover at the time, Ida Rubenstein, a beautiful dancer. The lack of a domestic setting for the nude and the dreamlike way she seems to drift across the canvas forces the viewer to directly and unapologetically confront both female sexuality generally and more personally the lesbian love that the artist had for the subject. As Joe Lucchesi explains, "...Brooks sharpens, intensifies, and consolidates the symbolist iconography of female sexuality."
Of interesting note however, when Brooks exhibited this painting she referred to it not by its title but as "The Dead Woman." In so doing, she seems to qualify the first intuitive interpretation of the work, that the woman has died and that in turn the artist prevents the viewer from being able to engage with the body sexually. Brooks is asserting her privileged relationship with Rubenstein (a sexy Parisian dancer who would usually perform and reveal only what she wanted) as something that is denied to others, something that is different and that nobody else can see. For Lucchesi, this painting "...alludes to the point at which identity gives fully over to the invisible, in the passage from life to death. This tension suggests that even as the physical body of Rubinstein becomes completely available to vision, the interior identity it contains will never be recovered or revealed." Brooks once again successfully asserts that a woman is more than her sexuality and that depth (even if she must be dead for others to finally see) always prevails.
A large and powerful female figure dominates Brooks' La France croisée. The woman, who we assume is a nurse for wounded soldiers, wears a cape like black jacket sewn with the symbol of the Red Cross on her right shoulder; her head is wrapped with a long, white flag-like head scarf that seems to call for surrender (and also echoes the dressings that she may have applied to injured men). She stands in front of a depiction of the city of Ypres, wrought by devastation as buildings burn in flames in the background, and as such, hopes for peace. The woman is depicted as a towering hero, with a determined stare and the innocence of intent. She recalls Eugéne Delacroix's famous depiction of Liberty Leading the People (1830); it is as though this woman is the figure who holds the capacity to lead people towards a better future, if they have the courage to join her.
The painting acts as a rare example of Brooks using her art to make a political statement. She pays homage to all the people who tried their hardest to help during World War I. The figure stands stoic and resolved to persevere over the violence that is happening all around her. Cassandra Langer describes this work as, "...Brooks' message of nonviolent resistance and restoration of civility, which translated into hope of triumph for the entrenched French." Interestingly, she chose her lover at the time, Ida Rubinstein to be the personification of the female hero, brings a personal aspect to this painting and pays tribute to the hard work they both did during the war. Brooks' was as an ambulance driver.
The painting was displayed in a Paris gallery in 1915. Brooks created an accompanying flyer that featured a reproduction of the painting alongside a poem by Gabriele D'Annunzio and then sold this to patrons. The funds raised from the thoughtful pamphlet sales went directly towards helping the Red Cross and other war efforts. Such actions, her work as a wartime ambulance driver, and the creation of this painting all contributed to Brooks receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honor by the French government in 1920.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Romaine Brooks
- Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine BrooksBy Meryle Secrest
- Romaine Brooks: A LifeOur PickBy Cassandra Langer
- Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine BrooksOur PickBy Whitney Chadwick
- Romaine Brooks: In the National Museum of American ArtBy Adelyn Dohme Breeskin
- A Lesbian Artist Who Painted Her Circle of Women at the Turn of the 20th CenturyOur PickHyperallergic / September 27, 2016
- The Nude Love of Ida Rubenstein and Romaine BrooksDaily Art Magazine / March 27, 2018
- The World Is Finally Ready to Understand Romaine BrooksOur PickSmithsonian.com / July 8, 2016
- Romaine Brooks: A LifeOur PickThis video is of a lecture given by art historian Cassandra Langer on the life and art of Romaine Brooks at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City on April 7, 2016.
- WETA Around Town: The Art of Romaine BrooksWETA Around Town program host Robert Aubry Davis and panelists Janis Goodman and Peter Winant discuss the Smithsonian exhibition "The Art of Romaine Brooks."