Brooks, Romaine (1874–1970)
Brooks, Romaine (1874–1970)
American portrait artist whose main theme was "the essential loneliness of the human predicament." Name variations: Beatrice Romaine Goddard. Born Beatrice Romaine Goddard on May 1, 1874, in Rome, Italy; died on December 7, 1970, in Nice, France; daughter of Major Henry Goddard and Ella Mary Waterman (an heiress); attended St. Mary's Hall, New Jersey, 1882–86; attended Catholic convent school, Italy, 1888; enrolled in Mlle Tavan's Finishing School, Geneva, Switzerland, 1891; studied singing, Paris, 1893; studied art, La Scuola Nazionale, Rome, 1896–97; attended Académie Colarossi, Paris, 1899; married John Ellingham Brooks, June 13, 1903 (separated, 1904); no children.
Went to Capri (1899); had first solo exhibition, Paris (1910); met Natalie Barney (1915); had solo exhibition of drawings, New York (1935); wrote memoirs (1930s); painted last portrait (1961).
Self-portrait (1900); Portrait of John Rowland Fothergill (1905); Azalées Blanches (1910); The Masked Archer (1910–11); Le Trajet (c. 1911); Gabriele d'Annunzio, Le Poète en Exil (1912); La France Croisée (1914); Jean Cocteau à Epoque de la Grand Roué (1914); Ida Rubenstein (1917); Renata Borgatti au Piano (c. 1920); Miss Natalie Barney, L'Amazone (1920); Una, Lady Troubridge (1924); Marchese Uberto Strozzi (1961).
It might strike one as odd that an artist who excelled in portraiture was a misanthrope to whom the common "herd" was repugnant. Beatrice Romaine Goddard Brooks was a "loner"; she was moody, "mistrustful of others," quick to take offense, completely self-centered, and possessive. A woman of great talent and wealth, her "unfulfilled life" was of her own making; Brooks believed "she was fated not to be happy," and as her biographer notes, this conviction "became tragically self-fulfilling."
In her unpublished memoirs, No Pleasant Memories, Romaine Brooks bitterly recollects the fear and rejection that made her childhood a "gothic nightmare." Written in the 1930s, they reveal the life of a "mistreated and emotionally damaged child with the mother as chief tormentor, of a demented brother, and an atmosphere of supernatural evil." Romaine's father, the son of a famous preacher, was an alcoholic, shadowy figure, whose identity and livelihood depended on his wealthy, unstable wife. But it was Ella Waterman Goddard who was the ogre in this idiosyncratic family; the daughter of a multimillionaire, Ella imposed a nomadic, dysfunctional lifestyle on her three children after divorcing their father. And from her mother, Romaine Brooks absorbed an "obsessive interest in the supernatural," which pervaded her childhood with ghosts, apparitions, and dire forebodings.
Insult and wound in me the friend, mistress and woman—I can take it—but I beg you, don't insult my art.
Neglected and unloved, Brooks resented, and yet pitied, her handsome, sickly, demented brother, St. Mar, on whom Ella bestowed all her love. To Romaine, St. Mar was an "Incomplete Being," a "divine fool … whose madness had an innocence that protected [him] from life." Little Romaine had no such protection. The first part of Brooks' memoirs, dealing with her childhood and young womanhood, often obscure more than they reveal. Names, places, and dates are falsified, and one is uncertain about the veracity of her recounting of events. For example, in 1881, while residing in New York, Brooks related how her mother sent her to live with an Irish washerwoman, Mrs. Hickey, in a run-down tenement. And in an amazingly matter-of-fact way, Brooks noted that her mother left New York without paying Mrs. Hickey and without leaving a forwarding address. This confirmed Romaine's conviction that she was unlovable, "although she did not know why." Was Mrs. Hickey a figment of Brooks' imagination, a fictitious, loving mother that Romaine so desperately needed? Her biographer admits that she is not certain. Imagined or real, Romaine, at age seven, accepted her fate as an outcast, who was denied a mother's love and was even rejected by the children in Mrs. Hickey's neighborhood.
Brooks' exile ended when her Grandfather Waterman sent his secretary to bring her to his house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Brooks was enrolled at St. Mary's Hall, a girls' boarding school. The strict religious atmosphere discouraged self-expression, and Romaine's artistic talents were severely restricted. Her mother had always forbidden her to draw at home, and once again her natural artistic impulses were thwarted. During her four years at St. Mary's, Brooks acquired a belief in God and "a spontaneous flowering of interest in her own sex." She had never liked her father whom she thought to be "a well-intentioned but ineffectual man." Major Henry's rather awkward visits to the school led her to conclude that "belonging to one parent was a disagreeable experience; I had no desire to belong to another," and she dismissed him from her life. Brooks consciously adopted Peer Gynt's maxim, "To thyself be enough," to which she tried to adhere all her life but failed.
After leaving school, Romaine joined her family in London; life was chaotic as they traveled around Europe with a large retinue of servants, a resident doctor, and 22 trunks. At 19, St. Mar was also a problem; frail and prematurely old, he loathed moving about, and his dementia was exacerbated by Ella's odd propensity for eating and sleeping at all hours of the day or night. Living with her mother was like "living on an avalanche," Romaine wrote, and at age 14, she was near nervous collapse. Sent away to a Catholic convent (the family was living in northern Italy), Romaine was forced "to adapt herself to a life of medieval Catholicism." The absence of privacy and personal hygiene and her stubborn refusal to accept the nuances of faith, made her unsuitable as a prospective nun, the vocation her mother and the nuns tried to impose on her. To escape this fate, Brooks decided to become ill, and she did. Finally, the frustrated nuns pronounced her damned and expelled her from school.
Romaine's mother had bought the Château Grimaldi on the Riviera near Mentone, and Romaine joined her family there. The imposing château had 30 rooms on four floors and a large staff of servants and groundskeepers. Brooks had the top floor to herself, but luxurious surroundings could not overcome her feelings of worthlessness: "She turned against herself," she wrote, "finding herself wanting." Outwardly obedient and passive, the 15-year-old had a dread of "descending through a trap door into a private hell" already occupied by St. Mar. But before the trap door sprung open, Romaine was shipped off, in 1891, to Mlle Tavan's Private Finishing School for Young Ladies in Geneva, to be groomed for marriage to some wealthy, acceptable suitor. But Brooks rigorously avoided any attempt to mold her into a decorous mate. She had no interest in academic subjects and filled her notebooks with drawings of "wing spans … a wing poised in flight" with which she later signed her work. Unhappy among her classmates, Romaine realized she was different from other women; already she found it difficult to relate to others and took umbrage at the most innocuous remarks, a lifelong trait.
To complete her education, Ella sent Romaine off to Paris to study art and music, and to lose her Swiss accent. Brooks knew that in two years, at age 21, she would be expected to earn a living; as an artist, she would live in poverty, but her musical talent could be turned into a singing career. In September 1893, she became a pupil of M. and Mme. Givend and moved into their dark, musty house in a pleasant suburb of Paris. Soon Romaine asserted her independence by moving to a dingy room in the avenue de Clichy and taking a job as an artist's model. Brooks had never asked her mother for money, but she now approached Dr. Alexander Hamilton Phillips to intercede for her with Ella. Phillips had cared for St. Mar for many years, and his ability to handle the young man's violent episodes and to evoke spirits, which delighted Ella, made him indispensable. Romaine hints strongly in her memoirs that Phillips had an affair with Ella whom he wanted to marry. Rejected, he turned to Romaine's older sister Maya who had been in love with him for years; they eloped to New York in 1895.
It is often difficult to separate fact from fantasy in Romaine's memoirs, and her own "affair" with Dr. Phillips is especially puzzling. Meryle Secrest recounts various possible scenarios without claiming that any are based on known facts. She suggests that Romaine became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, depositing the baby in a convent where the infant died. To Secrest, this helps to explain why Brooks moved to a remote village for several months, but, she adds, Romaine may have simply been taking her time to plan her future. In any case, Brooks' plea for an allowance to her mother, and to a cousin who managed the Waterman estate, was successful. Romaine received 300 francs a month from her mother until Ella died; she also inherited part of her grandfather's estate.
With an adequate allowance and an unusual degree of freedom for a young "lady" in the 1890s, Brooks sang at a working-class cabaret in Paris for several weeks before leaving for Rome in late 1896, to study art. Able to live frugally, she rented a studio in the Via Sistina. In 1896–97, Romaine studied, free of charge, at La Scuola Nazionale, where she was the only female student, and took a sketch class each evening at the Circolo Artistico. In Rome, Brooks learned how to live in a man's world, how to gain the respect and friendship of men.
While in Rome, Romaine met John Rowland Fothergill, a cultured, handsome graduate of Oxford and protegé of Oscar Wilde. He helped her appreciate the charms of Rome and made her aware of current aesthetic thought. Fothergill left for Greece, and they only met again in 1905, in London. Brooks painted his portrait, one that was "more virile than most." Called Roland in her memoirs, he was one of the few men Romaine liked, but by 1905, she was disappointed to find him changed; he had become "dreary and faded … jaded, superficial." And when he evinced an interest in marriage, Romaine "withdrew with finality. But she kept his photograph for seventy years."
Increasingly, Brooks saw herself as an outsider, a martyr (she began using the word Lapidée, one who is stoned, i.e., a martyr) incapable of engaging in normal relations with others. Placing a barrier between herself and the "herds" that rejected and misunderstood her, she tried to fashion her life, and her relationships, in light of her adopted maxim, "To thyself be enough," but it led only to an empty existence of her own making.
In the summer of 1899, Romaine went to Capri to try and sell her paintings to earn money for art classes in Paris. She rented a small studio and mingled with the expatriate community of writers and artists who lived on the island. Here she met John Ellingham Brooks, a handsome, charming, English homosexual, about 40 years old. John had studied law at Cambridge but was dedicating his life to translating the Hérédia sonnets and avoiding earning a living; able to live off the generosity of friends, he "dismissed the work ethic as if it never existed." It is not known how they met, but their sexual preferences never precluded their having close friendships with the opposite sex. Secrest points out that John could engage in "tender friendships with women if they did not demand too much from him," an attitude shared by Romaine. But where John was able to tolerate all kinds of people, because he did not expect much of them, Romaine was barely able to tolerate a select few. Aside from his homosexuality, John accepted, and embraced, social convention, "the right ordering of things." On the other hand, Romaine was not concerned about convention, probably because she had never been exposed to the conventional. At this time she received her first commission for a portrait of R. Barra, an American writer living on Capri. In contrast to her later work, she used the brilliant colors of the Capri landscape. The portraits of Barra and of a local Catholic priest reveal Brooks' ability to capture the nuances of character, and only the bright colors seem to place the paintings of this period outside of her corpus of work. Though not satisfied with her efforts, Romaine remembered this as the happiest time of her life.
In Paris during the fall of 1899, Brooks attended the Académie Colarossi while living in real poverty. But when a wealthy Russian fellow student tried to give her a warm fur coat, Romaine refused to accept it. Despite her desperate
circumstances, she refused to accept sexual advances from male acquaintances from Capri who contacted her in Paris; R. Barra insisted on having sex with Romaine before he would pay her what he still owed for his portrait. She refused, and he never paid. Another Capri acquaintance, who had shown a sincere interest in her work, suggested that she accompany him on a pleasure trip to England. Romaine's reaction was that men wanted nothing but to exploit women, and she resented being considered a sex object. Fearing for her mental and physical wellbeing, Brooks sought refuge in a Swiss village until she returned to Capri in the fall of 1901.
Here Romaine learned from a newspaper account that St. Mar had died. She left to join her mother and Maya in Nice. Romaine was shocked at her mother's appearance; shabbily dressed and unkempt, Ella had lost touch with reality. Ten months later, Ella died, uttering her final words of hatred for Romaine. But Brooks was not free; she felt her mother's presence haunting her, and nightly visitations from Ella and St. Mar finally drove Romaine from the château. She was convinced Ella was trying to destroy her, "in death as in life," the evil phantom who stood "between me and life," as she wrote in her memoirs. Whatever her emotional state and the fears that disturbed her might be, the phantasm of poverty no longer haunted her. Brooks was an enormously wealthy heiress. She inherited an apartment in Paris, eight additional apartments around France, and the Château Grimaldi, plus trunks of clothes, furs and linens, and a small fortune in coins. She knew that "the simple, almost monastic life … was now over."
During a visit to Capri in the spring of 1903, Romaine unexpectedly married John Brooks. To her annoyance, John insisted on a marriage ceremony, a "bourgeois convention," as she described it. Why she married John is not clear. In her memoirs she noted simply, "Nevertheless, I married him." Romaine assumed they would live separate lives, sharing a "tender friendship," but John thought otherwise. He envisioned Romaine as a "dutiful wife of an English squire" and thoughtlessly talked of how they would spend "our money." An elegant house in London and an active social life were John's idea of "the right ordering of things." Romaine would have none of it; she came to regard him as "the symbol of hateful restriction, a male Ella," and she left for London in 1904, forbidding John to join her there. To avoid a confrontation, Romaine arranged to give John an allowance of £300 a year.
She bought a studio in Chelsea and began to paint again. The influence of her neighbor, James Whistler, is obvious in her work of this period: neutral backgrounds and a more subdued light replaced the bright colors of Capri. Romaine Brooks was discovering her own style, "imposing a point of view upon a work for the first time." Relying on an extremely limited "range of tones"—black, white, and grey—she produced masterful character studies of women, including a stunning self-portrait in three-quarter face, employing the three colors and facial position that became her artistic signature. The warm reception given to her study of a young man's head encouraged her, and Brooks moved to Paris where the Impressionists were beginning to dominate the art world.
Her first exhibit of 13 paintings of women and young girls was in the prestigious Galeries Durand-Ruel and established her reputation as a mature, first-rate artist. The main theme of her work was "the essential loneliness of the human predicament," and her portraits were described as "strong and very cold." Similarly, her elongated nudes were judged "impressively eerie, suggesting a kind of icy eroticism." Depicting a limited range of moods in her work, Brooks painted "with sadness, too much sadness," wrote one critic, seeing "her subjects through a pervasive melancholy." Romaine insisted that she owed nothing to the Impressionists and refused to acknowledge that she was influenced by any of the current art movements.
Living in a fashionable district of Paris, Brooks chose to socialize with "the titled, the famous, the elegantly scandalous, and the intellectual elite" of the Right Bank. But she did not relate well to people, any people; unsympathetic and unduly critical, she rejected people for the most trivial reasons. She dismissed Jean Cocteau, French dramatist and film director, as a "malicious gossip" and "social climber." Brooks' misanthropy and frank expression earned her public censure. She frequented the famous literary salon of Mme. Muhlfeld who one day suggested that Romaine might consider marrying Henry Bernstein, the playwright. "I don't want to marry that dirty Jew," Brooks responded to her Jewish hostess. Labelled a bigot by the public, Romaine went on the defensive, portraying herself as "a noble being fated to be misunderstood and victimized."
Rubenstein, Ida (1875–1961)
Of Russian-Jewish parentage, Ida Rubenstein was born into wealth. Her parents supported her interest in ballet and paid for private study with Michel Fokine. The androgynous Rubenstein made her debut in 1909, in a private performance of Salomé, which was choreographed by Fokine. That same year, she made her Paris debut in the premiere season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, dancing the title role in Fokine's Cléopâtre. In 1910, she danced Queen Zobeide to Bronislava Nijinska 's Golden Slave in Fokine's Schéhérazade and "became the rage of smart Paris with her angular, mannish allure set off by a black panther," wrote Nigel Gosling.
Rubenstein stayed with the Ballets Russes, while also financially supporting the world of ballet and other principal artists. She commissioned Maurice Ravel to write "Bolero" for a Fokine ballet; she also commissioned Claude Debussy to write the score for Gabriele d'Annunzio's controversial Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian), a mystery play for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Again, she played the title role, but it closed after 11 performances. After leaving the Ballets Russes in 1915, Rubenstein formed her own company and hired such greats as Vaslav Nijinsky and Leonide Massine to direct and choreograph. She made her final appearance in the title role of Orphée in Paris in 1928 and retired to a life of seclusion in Vence, on the French Riviera. She died there in 1961.
Gosling, Nigel. The Adventurous World of Paris 1900–1914. NY: Morrow, 1978.
Thereafter, Brooks shunned Parisian society, but she was unable to avoid human entanglements. She fell in love with the lesbian Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer , American heiress of the Singer Sewing Machine magnate) whose husband was a homosexual, and, even more surprising, with the writer and right-wing Italian patriot Gabriele d'Annunzio. Often described as "short, fat, and ugly," d'Annunzio was irresistible to women. Why Romaine loved him and whether their "affair" was platonic or not is a mystery, but her distaste regarding sexual intercourse was obvious. In one of her notebooks, she stated that "the sexual act was a commotion, rather than an emotion." Eventually, d'Annunzio was forced to distance himself from Brooks whose intense love was too demanding; subsequently, love mellowed into a 30-year friendship, but Romaine got her revenge for being rejected. She took from d'Annunzio his newest love interest, a star of the Ballets Russes in Paris, Ida Rubenstein . The androgynous Ida adored Romaine who loved d'Annunzio who loved Ida. The ethereal ballerina was the ideal nude for Brooks and is the model for her Le Trajet (The Journey) of 1911.
Romaine admired Ida, but she found true, all-consuming love with Natalie Clifford Barney , a wealthy American by birth, but French by choice. A lesbian, a feminist, and an aggressive chaser of women, this "Amazon" was known for her Friday afternoon gatherings in her rue Jacob salon. Unlike Romaine who outwardly conformed to social convention, Natalie "never evaded, explained or apologized. She was what she was." Brooks did some of her best work in the 1920s. Barney, herself a talented writer, admired Romaine's artistic abilities, especially her drawings, which had never been exhibited. Romaine once explained her wraithlike line drawings as rising from the subconscious, "a kind of automatic writing." Brooks craved the approval and admiration of friends, and Barney unselfishly praised and pushed to get Romaine's work more widely appreciated. Romaine had finally found with Natalie Barney the love she desired, the kind of "open marriage" she had wanted with John Brooks. But Natalie was not monogamous, and Romaine suffered acute fits of jealousy. Natalie was humane, witty, intelligent, and gregarious—an undemanding, loyal friend. Romaine, on the other hand, retained her suspicions
regarding people's motives, convinced that everyone "was out to get her." Friends for over 50 years, they shared few interests, except that they both cared deeply about Romaine. Everyone was aware that Natalie was the partner who gave, and Romaine was the one who took.
Through Barney, Brooks became acquainted with the literary elite of Paris, Colette, Gertrude Stein , Ezra Pound, and others. She also met, and disliked the English couple, Radclyffe Hall , writer of lesbian novels, and Lady Una Troubridge . Romaine's portrait of Una, dressed in male attire and sporting a monocle, was deemed a caricature; this is in stark contrast to her portrait of Natalie, which displays the warmth and intimacy Romaine felt for her own lover. By the 1930s, interest in Brooks' work was dwindling, and she turned to writing her memoirs, which she revised for the next 30 years. Unfortunately, the memoirs provide little insight into Romaine's views on lesbianism, her marriage, or her long association with Natalie Barney. According to her biographer, the "dominant tone … is one of embittered outrage of a woman bent on bringing to justice those who would have destroyed her if they could."
Brooks was bitter, too, that her work did not appeal to or interest Americans. Like Mary Cassatt , Romaine received recognition from her adopted country, France, but was ignored by her own nation. Brooks' drawings were exhibited in New York in 1935, and she took a studio in Carnegie Hall for the year she spent there; disappointed in the tepid reception her work received, she returned permanently to Europe. She had always thought of herself as American, but she was, as Barney noted, "a stranger everywhere." Bored, dependent on and demanding of Natalie's total affection and attention, and having excluded many people from her life, Romaine slowly and ominously began to take on her mother's aberrant behaviors. Constantly moving about, increasingly hypochondriacal, and convinced she was going blind, Brooks spent weeks secluded in a darkened room, drinking carrot juice and eating herbal concoctions. Barney grew concerned as Brooks became more and more reclusive, but her efforts to get Romaine to see mutual friends created friction between the women. Moreover, since Romaine was often absent from Paris, Natalie had acquired a new lover, and Romaine cruelly severed all contact with her friend, ignoring the fact that Barney was no longer physically able to care for herself. Meanwhile, Brooks was able to spend winters in her apartment in Nice and summers in her villa outside Florence.
Brooks was in fairly good physical health, but she acted irrationally at times—everyone was out to get her, to take advantage of her, even her faithful servants. Alone and consumed with suspicions, she fell madly in love at age 85 with the French portraitist Edouard MacAvoy who had been influenced by her work and encouraged Romaine to resume painting. They agreed to each do a portrait of the other. Romaine never did, but MacAvoy's portrait of the elderly Brooks displeased her, even after he "removed a double chin." She bought the picture, hung it opposite her bed, and concealed it behind a black cloth drape. Jealous and possessive, Brooks finally destroyed their friendship.
By the 1930s, Romaine's work was viewed anachronistic, irrelevant to many in the art world. She had never needed to sell her work to earn a living, and she refused to part with her paintings: the Fothergill portrait was stolen by the subject, Romaine claimed, not given to him. No portrait of John Brooks, who died of cancer in 1929, was ever done, a rather odd omission from her wide-ranging portrait production. Romaine Brooks was, and is, a rather remote figure in black, white, and grey. She never felt completely at ease anywhere or with anyone. Unable to accept that she was subject to normal human frailties, Brooks descended into the dreaded, despised world of Ella; like her mother, she ate and slept at odd hours and inhabited a tomb-like room devoid of all color, except black. Her biographer Secrest wrote that to "have let go of her rage would have removed the barriers between her and life," but the major barrier was the specter of Ella Goddard that was more real to Romaine than life itself.
Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: A Life of Radclyffe Hall. London: GMP Publishers, 1985.
Secrest, Meryle. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Blume, Mary. Article on Romaine Brooks in Réalités, December 1967.
Breeskin, Adelyn. Essay on Romaine Brooks in "Thief of Souls." Catalogue of National Collection of Fine Arts exhibition, March 1971.
Kramer, Hilton. "Romaine Brooks: Revelation in Art," in The New York Times. April 14, 1971.
"Revival of Romaine Brooks," in The New York Times. April 25, 1971.
Young, Mahonri Sharp. Essay on Romaine Brooks in Apollo. London, May 1971.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
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