Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks

National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA)
June 29 to September 24, 2000.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks

Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks, the first major retrospective in over 30 years to showcase the work of this American expatriate artist, will be presented by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) from June 29 to September 24, 2000. In this comprehensive study, Brooks’s art will be seen in the context of her sexuality and identity. Fifty-four works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be combined with 50 paintings, drawings, photographs, and sketch books, many previously unavailable for viewing, from public and private collections in France.

Brooks (1874-1970) lived and worked in Paris for most of her life. She focused on the single human figure, and was called the “Thief of Souls” by poet and friend Count Robert de Montesquiou because of her psychologically penetrating portrait style. The exhibition comprises four main sections: portraits; self-portraits; images of Ida Rubinstein, Brooks’s intimate partner for three years; and drawings.

Amazons in the Drawing Room looks at how Brooks’s concern with issues of identity influenced her art. Three main elements shaped her work: her place in elite European social circles; her involvement in the
homosexual literary and artistic culture of Paris; and her feelings about her childhood. Her art is seen as a
significant record of early-20th-century European literary and artistic culture, and provides an important link between portraiture, the American expatriate experience, and aspects of homosexuality. “–Introduction to the exhibition. National Museum of Women in the Arts website.

University of California Berkeley Art
Museum/Pacific Film Archives from October 11, 2000 to January 21, 2001.

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is proud to present Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks, the first major retrospective in over thirty years to showcase the work of gay heiress and American expatriate Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970). This comprehensive exhibition, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), Washington D.C., combines works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum with paintings, drawings, photographs, and sketch books by the artist, drawn from significant public and private collections in France. Much of this material has previously not been available to the public.

Amazons in the Drawing Room presents Brooks’s work in relation to early twentieth-century European society, and contemporary ideas about personal identity, class, and sexuality. The exhibition comprises four main sections: Portraits; Self-Portraits; Images of Ida Rubinstein; and Drawings. Brooks’s painting was influenced by three main elements: her place in elite European social circles; her involvement in the homosexual literary and artistic culture of Paris; and her childhood experiences. According to NMWA guest curator and St. Mary’s College, Maryland, Professor Joe Lucchesi, Brooks’s works are also a visual record of the changing status of women in society, and of Brooks own refusal to conform to the social order of the day. Her rebellious nature can be seen in her paintings of nudes-not traditionally the subject of women artists at that time-and in the androgynous appearance of some of her portraits.

Brooks produced many portraits of Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein during their relationship, which lasted between 1911 and 1914. Among these paintings are La France Croisée (The Cross of France, 1914), in which patriotic heroism is portrayed by a figure cloaked in black bearing the insignia of the Red Cross, and Le Trajet (The Crossing, 1911), which presents an image of female sexuality and morbidity. Also included is Ida Rubinstein (1917), in which Ida’s windswept figure, again wrapped in a black cloak, is the very image of Brooks’s romantic ideal.

Brooks’s predominant subject was portraiture, and at the center of the exhibition are stark, gray-and-black-toned depictions of herself and her circle, which included the artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, poet and pro-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio, pianist Renata Borgatti, and Duchess Elisabeth de Gramont, among others. Brooks’s so-called “amazon” portraits of the 1920s, stylistically influenced by another expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler, can be seen as the artist’s bold attempt to fashion a lesbian identity for her sitters.

Brooks (née Goddard) was born in Rome in 1874 to prosperous American parents. In her unpublished autobiography, Brooks writes that she had a traumatic childhood. Brooks was raised by her mother’s family following her parents’ divorce, and as a child attended private schools in the U.S. and Europe. In 1902, she married gay British pianist John Ellingham Brooks and adopted the facade of propriety in exchange for a promise of independence. The marriage lasted a year. Brooks had her first exhibition in Paris in 1910, where she was acknowledged as a painter of distinction and commended for paintings of elegance and subtlety. A 1925 exhibition of her work, on view in Paris, London, and New York, confirmed Brooks’s reputation as an accomplished portrait painter. By the late 1930s, she had stopped painting and become instead focused exclusively on drawing and writing her autobiography. Brooks became increasingly reclusive and retreated to her home in southern France, where she died in 1970 at the age of 96.

Romaine Brooks
Annotated Bibliography

Breeskin, Adelynn Dohme. Romaine Brooks. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986. 2nd ed.
This book was a catalogue that traveled with an early exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution.

Chadwick, Whitney. Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks. London, England. Chameleon, 2000.
This comprehensive and thorough reference was the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Berkeley Art Museum. It includes a brief biography by Chadwick and analysis by Joe Lucchesi.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London. Thames and Hudson, 1990 and 1996.
The book includes numerous pages referencing Brooks and her work and its importance to art in the 20th century.

Chicago, Judy and Lucie-Smith, Edward. Women and Art: Contested Territory. New York, Watson-Guptill Publishing, 1999.
Women and Art is a survey of Women’s Art organized in categories. Brooks falls under the chapters “Casting Couch and Brothel” and the chapter “Exploring Identities.” The book talks about how Brooks explored studies of women reclining on the couch. In the other chapter Chicago explains how artist use drag in their art and what that conveys.

Secrest, Meryle. Between Me and Life.
This book is a biography written shortly after her death.

Weiss, Andrea. Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank. San Francisco, Harpers, 1995.
This book is a great reference on Brooks, depicting the context in which she was making art.

Romaine Brooks
Exhibition Response
By Adrienne Rodriguez

The Romaine Brooks Exhibit held at the Berkeley Art Museum (as well as at the National Museum of Women in the Arts earlier in 2000) from October 11, 2000 through January 21, 2001 was the first West Coast Exhibition of her work. Romaine Brooks is a noted expatriate who lived in Europe and painted mostly portraits. She painted during the early part of the century however, her style is unique and does not resemble more popular styles seen in that period like Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism etc. Her tones and hues were similar to Whistler, whom she admired. Her subject matter is widely discussed by art historians and critics because of its sometimes lesbian content. Being lesbian herself, she explored or rather just painted a different type of sexuality in portraiture that she drew from her friends. Brooks portrayed her friends dressed in drag, androgynous, nude, in mythological contexts, and traditionally. Yet the media has been hooked on her nude portraits and friends in drag.

According to an Associated Press article at the “show features work of expatriate artist who painted lesbian nudes.” If anyone is familiar with Brooks’ paintings they know the bulk of her paintings are portraits. Some are nude, some are lesbian, but these are not her main focus, and this label hardly encapsulates her artistic endeavors. The article continues to focus on her expatriate identity, living in “enemy Italy.” I found that this brief article painted her portrait as a lesbian, feminist, fascist, expatriate-extremist who was unfortunately allowed to have a show 30 years after her death. Instead of focusing on the show, its contents, and her contributions to the art world, the Associated Press article took a destructive path. It used quotes completely out of context, leaving the reader unsettled about Brooks and her art. For example, “Brooks belonged to conservative circles that hated President Roosevelt.” What does this quote have to do with the upcoming show? I found the article to be unflattering and filled with frivolous information that had nothing to do with her artistic style except for the sentence “She defied the trends of the times in her work, too, ignoring cubism, surrealism and other movements of the late 1900’s.” The article includes this quote: “Una Troubridge, for example,” says the label of one, “had recently left her husband” – British Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge – “to begin a lifelong relationship with the British female writer Radclyffe Hall, the author of the controversial 1928 lesbian novel, “The Well of Loneliness” They fail to depart from this sensational topic of lesbians in drag and therefore fall short of giving Brooks a substantial review.

Romaine Brooks: Amazons and Artists by Nancy Warren presents a different angle to the exhibit. Her article for the SF Gate, the online division of the San Francisco Chronicle, was enthusiastic and well-researched. She spoke about the praise Brooks received then and now. She argues that critics are still not comfortable with her subject matter, which is complex, because of its “overt canonization of the lesbian image.” Warren discusses her technique and style. For example, she writes, “But while Brooks shattered artistic conventions with her choice of subject, she was ultra-traditional stylistically, ignoring many important art movements of her time, including Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism.” Warren even publicly announces she is a bit uncomfortable with Brooks’ politics “bordering on fascism.” Instead of tarnishing her entire analysis of Brooks like the Associated Press article, she declares her feelings about Brooks’ politics and says only “the downside to our talented portraitist was her increasing conservatism.”

One of the least informed articles on Romaine Brooks was written by Anne Y. Keehn for a web site called RINTIN.ART. This article is approached in a hip-hop style that falls short of executing the conceptual power of Romaine Brooks and her art. She likens Brooks to Madonna during the Blond Ambition tour pushing the envelope when it came to portraying lesbian sexuality. She praises Brooks as a rebel by “turning out paintings of sexually charged female nudes” and “using her art as a rebellious statement.” First of all, how does she know if Brooks thought of herself as rebellious in any nature or thought that she was going against the grain? Keehn describes that “to see Brooks’s every artistic gesture as a studied posture of rebellion (again think Madonna).” “Romaine Brooks was attracted to female beauty – but not a T & A type sexually charged beauty.” “In this age of Cosmopolitan and Vogue, anorexia and Ally McBeal, Romaine Brooks’ paintings are like tragically unnoticed omens.” She takes Brooks out of her social context and reads it from a 21st century perspective that only serves to demean the art and the show. She does make a few good points such as “She highlighted the collarbone, the hollow cheek, and the protruding skull at the temple – the angular and delicate aspects of the body, as opposed to the fleshy and soft.” Perhaps Keehn was trying for a younger audience, but she falls short of doing the exhibit justice. Keehn writes “It is easy to peg Romaine Brooks as an oddball curiosity, destined to be shelved under the loaded category of Feminist Painter. Don’t do this. It would be an affront to her life-long struggle to create Art fit for the mainstream – that is, Art to be viewed alongside her male contemporaries.” She really means to say she cannot capture the essence of Brooks in this article so one needs to see it themselves.

The most solid and intelligent article was written by Tirza Latimer for the East Bay Express. In this article she plots point by point how the show works and who Romaine Brooks was and is. She discusses Brooks’ stylistic change: “Whether the Great War and its aftermath positioned Brooks to paint from a different perspective, whether Barney’s Sapphic militantness set her on a different course, or whether the artist’s critical success of the 1910’s gave her the confidence to take less conventional tack, Brooks approach to portraiture changed quite radically in the 1920’s.” She also mentions her immersion in Parisian life. “Brooks migrated from the parlors of her aristocratic sitters into another type of salon society, a largely lesbian and largely literary society that revolved around another culturally ambitious American heiress, Natalie Clifford Barney.” Latimer also analyzes the show and its content in relation to its purpose as an introduction or survey of Brooks. Latimer writes: “If the exhibition first presents us with an introduction to, and overview of Brooks’ portraiture , it then proceeds to surprise us with works in genres that most people do not associate with this painter.” She, unlike other writers, has a strong art historical perspective that gives the reader a text-book account of the show æ one that is factual, critical, and insightful for readers who know nothing about Brooks and her part in the early 20th century art culture.