Romaine Brooks at 34 in 1908
Beatrice Romaine Goddard (1874-1970) was born while her mother was traveling in Rome. She was the newest addition to a wealthy but severely dysfunctional family from Philadelphia. Her maternal grandfather was the multimillionaire Isaac S. Waterman. Romaine's father abandoned the family shortly after her birth. Her mother left her infant daughter with a family laundress in the United States while she traveled throughout Europe with her other children. Romaine was finally allowed to join her mother in Europe when she was twelve years old. She was, however, educated in private girls' schools while her mother continued her travels. Later, Brooks referred to herself as having been a "child-martyr".
Brooks traveled to Rome in 1898 and began to take painting classes at the La Scuola Nazionale. During the following year, she continued to study painting at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. Brook's mother died of diabetes in 1902. Much to her surprise, she inherited, at the age of twenty-eight, the entire family fortune. The same year, Brooks moved to London and agreed to a marriage of convenience with John Ellingham Brooks, an impoverished, but socially prominent, gay pianist. They quarrelled almost immediately when she cut her hair and ordered men's clothes for a planned walking tour of England; he refused to be seen in public with her dressed that way. They separated after three months, but Brooks continued to support him the rest of his life.
Brooks reinvented her identity by dropping the feminine name Beatrice and keeping her married surname. She was now known by the androgynous name of Romaine Brooks. Brooks rented a studio in Chelsea across from the studio in which James McNeil Whistler had worked. Whistler's subdued palette would soon influence her work. By 1905, when she was thirty-one, Brooks resettled in Paris. She took an apartment in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, mingled in elite social circles, and painted portraits of wealthy and titled women, including her lover at the time, the Princess de Polignac. During 1910 Brooks began to paint the works for which she became renowned. Her first female nude was The Red Jacket, soon followed by an erotic odalisque entitled White Azaleas:
Romaine Brooks, White Azaleas, 1910
Brooks's first one-woman exhibition was shown in May of 1910 at the prestigious Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris. It was a breakthrough exhibition in which she exhibited thirteen portraits and nudes that made her lesbian identity public. She received critical acclaim from Robert de Montesquiou, the aristocratic dandy on whom Proust based the character of the homosexual Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past. He served as Brook's principal mentor, calling her "the thief of souls".
In 1911, Brooks met Ida Rubenstein who performed with the Ballets Russes in Paris. Rubinstein was deeply in love with Brooks; she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they could live alone together- a mode of life in which Brooks had no interest. For Brooks, Rubinstein's "fragile and androgynous beauty" represented an aesthetic ideal. The dancer quickly became the subject of her most important early portraits.
Brooks soon earned a reputation as an accomplished portraitist. She first painted the Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio in 1912. She also painted a portrait of Jean Cocteau (below) before his rise to fame. The Cross of France (above), a portrait of Ida Rubenstein with a resolute expression while Ypres burns in the distance behind her, was executed shortly after the beginning of World War I and exhibited in 1915 as part of a benefit that D'Annunzio and Brooks organized for the Red Cross. In 1920, Brooks received the Chevalier medal from the French Legion of Honor for this and other efforts on behalf of France.
Brooks met the woman who would soon become most important in her life in 1915 when she was forty-one. Natalie Barney, an American expatriate writer who had moved to Paris in 1902, was thirty-nine when the two women met. Their relationship lasted for nearly fifty years. Brooks benefited from Barney's literary salons in that she painted many of the illustrious people who frequented them. Truman Capote, who toured Brooks's studio in the late 1940s, may have been exaggerating when he called it "the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts".
Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait, 1923
In 1923, Brooks painted her two most famous works. In Self-Portrait (above) she wears a top hat that is too large and equestrian attire, with the emblem of the Legion of Honor flashing on her lapel. She blatantly and subversively appears as an aristocratic male dandy. Her Self-Portrait was followed in the same year by her portrait entitled Una, Lady Troubridge (below). Troubridge had recently left her husband for Radclyffe Hall, who was to become the author of the most famous lesbian novel of the twentieth century, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Unas's pose and eye-piece offer a humorous commentary on gender roles and also alludes to a lesbian bar in Paris named L'Monocle.
In 1924, Brooks built a house with Natalie Barney at Beauvallon, France, near St. Tropez. To preserve their independence, the structure consisted of two wings that were united by a dining room. They called it Villa Trait d'Union, the "hyphenated villa". Brooks's career reached its zenith in 1925 with three exhibitions of her work in Paris, London and New York. In 1936, Brooks moved to New York City where she rented a studio in Carnegie Hall. In 1939, as World War II began in Europe, Brooks returned to France to live with Barney in Villa Beauvallon. When the house burned in 1940, Brooks retreated to Italy, where she purchased a villa outside Florence.
After World War II, Brooks faded from public life. Her artistic output ceased and she lived in isolation. In 1967, Brooks left Italy and took a studio apartment in Nice. Two years later, Brooks and Barney separated. Having grown increasingly eccentric while living in isolation, Brooks died alone at the age of ninety-six on December 7, 1970. Natalie Barney died two years later in Paris, having also reached the age of ninety-six.