Romaine Brooks

(1874—1970) painter and lesbian icon

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Painter and draftswoman. Remembered particularly for images of women, often portraits, she emphasized melancholy self-absorption, as well as psychological and social isolation. Nevertheless, many subjects radiate inner strength as they defy conventional gender expectations. Born to American parents in Rome, Beatrice Romaine Goddard studied art between 1896 and 1899 at the Scuola Nazionale in Rome and at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. For a time in the early 1900s she lived on Capri, where she met homosexual British pianist and poet John Ellingham Brooks. Their marriage lasted only a year. In England she painted her first mature work, soft and reserved portraits and figure studies inspired by James McNeill Whistler, whose palette of grays and muted earth tones she continued to favor. In 1905 she moved to Paris, where she became widely acquainted in artistic and literary circles. There her paintings became more stylized, emphasizing line and flat patterning. In Le Trajet (The Crossing) (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1911) an emaciated nude reposes as if in death, her long black hair sweeping beyond the white sheet on which she reclines and into the darkness that surrounds all. In its lugubrious, aestheticized tone and sweeping linear rhythms, it draws on precedents in art nouveau and symbolism, suggesting also the influence of Aubrey Beardsley and Edvard Munch. In a more forthright Self Portrait (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1923), Brooks presents herself as a resolute but somewhat mysterious figure in mannish black riding habit, a black hat shadowing her eyes. After 1930 Brooks rarely painted. However, for another decade she continued to draw hermetic, symbolist reveries, occasionally suggesting contemporary surrealism, in a style emphasizing continuous curving lines. For the half century after 1915, American expatriate writer Natalie Barney was her companion. Brooks died in Nice, where she had lived since the later 1940s, reclusively in her final years.

Subjects: Art.

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