American Artist Romaine Brooks moved among the wealthy, lesbian social circles of 1920s Paris. Living in the world of Picasso and Matisse, Brooks has been largely forgotten by mainstream culture. Yet, her contribution was an important one. She was a complicated artist who defied convention both in terms of her lesbianism, and in her radical artistic output which subverted the male gaze in an almost pre-modern figurative style.
I grasped every occasion no matter how small, to assert my independence of views
Born in 1874, Brooks had an unhappy childhood, plagued by physical and emotional abuse. She later excoriated it in her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories. Her biographer Cassandra Langer summarises it thus: “Brooks had a Gothic childhood replete with a mad cousin in the attic, an abusive and cruel mother, a conservative and cold sister and an insane brother.” In 1893, when suffering neglect from her family while they lived peripatetically in Europe, she decided to escape to Paris.
After some time living and studying in Paris – then later Rome and Capri – Brooks inherited a large sum of money on her mother’s death. This gave the artist the financial independence she needed to pursue the development of her craft. After a brief marriage to gay pianist John Ellingham Brooks in 1903 – the motives of which still perplex scholars today – she embraced her lesbianism and increasingly eschewed the physicality of feminine stereotypes in her artistic work.
She was one of the first modern artists to depict women’s resistance to patriarchal representations of the female in art… She understood that women in art had been treated as objects rather than subjects. She made it her mission to change all that. – Cassandra Langer
By 1910, Brooks was a confident artist, working in her – now recognisable – grey palette. She returned to Paris and put on her first ever solo show at the Gallery Durand-Ruel. Amongst thirteen paintings, White Azaleas was the piece that caused a stir. It depicts a nude woman reclining in front of a series of Japanese style prints, a large bunch of white azaleas beside her. This nude is remarkable for the subject’s nonchalance: she gazes into the distance, not seemingly making any concerted effort to entice the viewer. This painting has often been likened to Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s La maja desnuda. Whereas these paintings use devices to directly engage the viewer – and sexually appeal – through pose and eye contact, Brooks rejects the male gaze. Her painting is radical because it alludes to lesbian desire without making eroticism the sole focus of the piece. She does not prioritise the figure, who is simply part of a scene in which the white flowers stand out among an austere monochrome palette. This indifference to the viewer pervades her art – in particular, her portraits.
When Brooks began a lifelong relationship with writer Natalie Barney in 1915, she was thrown into a social circle of “sexually and financially independent expatriate women in Paris.” She painted many of them during the 1920s. Indeed, when Truman Capote visited the artist’s studio in the 1940s he (somewhat tactlessly) touted it “the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts.”
Throughout her career, Brooks painted women, and in doing so, molded a new shape for the 21st century lesbian — sometimes sexual, sometimes not, sometime masculine, sometimes feminine, and not really all too concerned about your prognosis. – Priscilla Frank
Brooks’ portrait of British artist Gluck, entitled Peter, a Young English Girl, is beautifully androgynous. Like many of her contemporaries, Gluck had cropped hair and wore men’s suits as an indication of her sexuality. From a distance, the sitter looks like a man, but on closer inspection her sharp and delicate features reveal a femininity. She is self-assured and poised, exquisitely rendered with Brooks’ favoured grey hues that breathe vitality into her subjects.
Brooks’ 1923 Self-Portrait is similarly angular, androgynous and undeterred by the viewer. Holland Cotter remarked: “She’s not passively inviting your approach; she’s deciding whether you’re worth bothering with. Chances are, you’re not, at least not if you’re approaching with the conventional notions of what male and female mean.”
Though much of Brooks’ art focused on individual women, she created a series of drawings that showed a remarkable talent for the surreal. These drawings were produced alongside her memoirs, and grapple with mythical creatures, angels and demons. The artist noted that they “evolved from the subconscious without premeditation.” Unity of Good and Evil (1930-34), is a whirl of restless, curving lines. Emerging from the flurry are a sleeping mother and child, with three serpents spitting behind. Whether or not this is the artist contending with her fraught childhood, as has been interpreted, these drawings are phenomenal works of art. One scholar notes that they “display a passionate intelligence that commanded the respect and admiration of some of the foremost critics of her time.”
Brooks’ works are a fascinating insight into lesbian subculture in the early twentieth century, and looking across her incredible body of work is a reminder of the tragic neglect she’s received from critics in the decades since her death. As Langer describes, “I always considered her queerness paradoxically essential and beside the point. The simple truth is she was a great artist whose work has been misinterpreted and overlooked.”