1920s Paris. Bohemian, artistic, full of expatriates and very, very queer. However, the history of queer expatriate women in France has been lost throughout the ages with all of the praise given Picasso, Matisse, and Dalí — just to name a few. In a new exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has brought one of those forgotten figures of queer bohemia, and her beautiful portraits, back to our attention.
Romaine Brooks lived most of her life within Parisian counterculture, socializing with some of the wealthiest English and American expatriates. She was almost always the only woman in her painting classes and her first gallery show in 1910 solidified her artistic reputation. Critics praised the show almost entirely composed of portraits of women, including a nude titled White Azaeleas which drew comparisons to Manet’s Olympia.
Romaine's artistic style was very unique. Her color palette always fell between shades of gray, somber tones of black and white. She captures the fashionable femininity of that era with delicate, life-like modesty. Brooks’s depictions of womanhood appeared cold with a stylish realism. "She really painted as though Picasso and Matisse didn't exist," Joe Lucchesi, a consultant curator for the Smithson tells NPR.
Her World War I painting, La France Croisée, has the representation of France standing in the chill of a wasteland, yet she remains immaculately composed. The woman's fierce expression is punctuated like an angry kiss with the cross pinned to her breast. As Romaine's work evolved, the female subjects of her paintings became sharply modern, in possession of a kind of feminine strength that couldn’t be captured by other male artists working at that time.
After the death of her abusive mother, Brooks used her large inheritance to move to Paris. She began associating with the other sexually and financially independent expatriate women living there — many become her lovers as well as her portrait subjects. After a very brief, tumultuous marriage, Romaine completely swore off men and monogamy. In 1915, Brooks met Natalie Barney and their nonmonogamous relationship would continue for almost five decades. Barney herself was a leader of literary salons and introduced Brooks to other lesbians in the Parisian scene. Brooks and Barney were known for always living very independent lives when they were together. They slept in two separate rooms and they both continued to have affairs outside of the relationship. Around this time, they formed a kind of love-triangle with Lily de Gramont, Brooks's former lover, and the trio continued to see other female suitors within their marginalized social circle over the course of being together.
In the 1920's, Romaine Brooks broke through the rigid gender mold. She cropped her hair and began to wear more masculine clothing such as trousers and jackets designed by men’s tailors. The women of her paintings adopted the same kind of dress. To be clear, these women were not trying to become men or pass as men. This androgynous manner of dress was a kind of signal to their fellow lesbians, a way of flaunting their sexuality while remaining under the radar. In fact, many mainstream magazines believed that these women were simply being fashionable. These lesbian women moved with a kind of gender fluidity that had never been seen before in bohemian culture.
Peter (An English Girl) captures this movement to androgyny. The subject of the portrait is a British painter, Hannah Gluckstein, who began to go by the genderless "Gluck" in the '20s. When Brooks met her at one of Barney's salons, Gluck called herself Peyter Gluck and would appear in men's suits and fedoras. The quiet, austere space around her body emphasizes Gluck's androgynous identity and her eyes are expressive with sexual energy.
In her own self-portrait, Brooks appears brooding in an all-black ensemble of a top hat. Her eyes are obscured by shadows. Her hair, cropped to her ears, just barely sticks out from under her hat. Her jacket is cut narrow and her high collar gives her an air of regality. Her hands are painted mid-gesture, almost lady-like in their thick gray gloves. If you were to pass this painting without taking a closer look, perhaps you would not see the slightest suggestion of pink on her mouth, you would assume she was a man.
When Truman Capote visited Romaine Brooks’s studio in the 40s, he called it "the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from 1880 to 1935 or thereabouts.” While that’s probably an exaggeration, it’s a shame that art history has forgotten about this lesbian painter. Within this corner of Parisian bohemia, Romaine was painting women outside of restrictive gender roles of femininity, documenting a part of queer history that occurred long before the androgynous movement of the female Surrealists. In his book Amazons In The Drawing Room, author Whitney Chadwick likens Romaine as "the first female painter since Artemisia Gentileschi in the seventeenth century to portray an ideal of heroic femininity."
SAAM's exhibit finishes on October 2nd. If you're not in the Washington D.C. area, don't fret. More images of Brooks's work are available on the museum's website.
Photos via Smithsonian American Art Museum
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