Romaine Brooks has many names. Among them, she is “the patron saint of lesbian artists”, chillingly called the “thief of souls”, and is a self-described “child-martyr”. Brooks is an intriguing artist with an unhappy upbringing, captivating relationships, and an almost heroic path from nothing to everything. At times her life threatens to overshadow her equally striking work (I’m actually going to skip over writing an overview of Brook’s life. It’s incredibly interesting but work detailing her life already exists in spades. Check out the Wikipedia page for a quick look). Her work alone is very compelling and contains a psychology that was innovative and influential for the era.
An American figure painter who spent her life an expat in Europe, Brooks is still largely unknown outside of queer/feminist art circles. Brooks enjoyed a public revival during the 1980s as figurative art began to come back in vogue. Her work has a strange pull. The figures are imbued with intriguing psychology, strengthened by Brook’s preferred cool, muted palettes and strong black lines. It’s unsurprising that contemporary queer and feminist artists are attracted to Brooks’ work given its subject matter and technique. Her works depict women—friends and lovers—posed to express their strength, individuality, and—most importantly—a newly visible lesbian identity. This is an atypical portrayal of women at the time. Certainly most artist did not paint women with short hair and masculine suits, and generally their women were more abstract; more decorative and less real.
Let’s start with a quick analysis of Brooks’ style. Her paintings generally feature very dramatic figures against static, emotionally charged backgrounds. The figures stand tall and there is a focus on angularity; the artist emphasizes jutting collar bones and gaunt faces using strategic modeling, mark making, and liberal application of black outlines. Her figures are not happy, but they are resilient. Their faces are visible and engaging in a way that makes it clear we are not just supposed to appreciate a painting of a woman; we are supposed to appreciate a painting of this woman. And these women do not comply with the era’s traditional ideas of femininity nor do they exist simply to decorate.Take, for instance, the portrait of friend and fellow artist, Gluck:
This painting is titled, Peter (A Young English Girl). The sitter, Hannah Gluckstein, was a contemporary artist and good friend of Brooks . The two friends painted one another, resulting in this piece and an unfinished piece by Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein worked under the name of Gluck and preferred to be called Peter within her circle of friends). The title of the piece contrasts with Gluck’s androgyny, as sans title the viewer might not guess Gluck’s gender. It asks the viewer to take a closer look and think about the identity of the woman portrayed. Gluck’s androgyny is emphasized by her clothing, wearing a sharp jacket, holding a men’s hat, and sporting a short, boyish haircut. Both Brooks and Gluck were attracted to women and found that the current style of menswear inspired fashion suited them. These suits were a great way for upper class lesbians to identify one another while remaining discreet. The fact that they were wearing masculine clothing was frequently overlooked in light of their wealth and status. Those who were not looking for lesbian sexuality viewed these clothing choices as more of a quirk of wealth and fashion.
Brooks produced work during the modernist period. Because of this, she was often judged unfavorably for her traditional use of composition and her Whistler-inspired palettes (It’s almost impossible to read an article about Brooks that does not compare her to Whistler. It’s certainly a fair comparison although certain critics use it solely to dismiss her work). Many note that Brooks’ work leans towards Symbolism and criticize it as old fashioned. However, Brooks has recently been reexamined in a queer/feminist context that recognizes her works’ innovation in its portrayal of women as psychological and not just decorative subjects. Also noted is her incorporation of personal identity into portraits of others. By working in a traditional style of naturalistic portraiture, she can utilize existing norms to depict a new lesbian identity. According to Elliott and Wallace in a piece on Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney in the context of the avant-garde, “Upsetting the signifying practices of the dominant social order entails not only finding new forms of writing and painting but the construction of new meanings, identities, and communities” (Elliott, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace. “Fleurs du Mal or Second-Hand Roses?: Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and the ‘Originality of the Avant-Garde’.” Feminist Review 40 (1992): 24.). One can understand that it is not just the style of work that requires examination and innovation, but the content.
Proponents of the avant-garde often dismissed the work of women and minority artists as being derivative. Even today, there are critics who universally dismiss identity art as being limited to small audiences (meaning audiences that aren’t white, straight, and male) and as being simply imitative. This is not the case. Many artists employ traditional methods of art in a way that changes convention. By working within a previously established kyriarchal framework, unpriveleged artists are able to express new ideas in a way that is still accepted by traditional art structures (Somewhat unrelated note: I recently attended an artist talk by Kerry James Marshall at the National Gallery of Art. One of points he brough up was that many black, American artists work in a westernized style in order to gain acceptance into the existing, predominantly white, artistic community while still expressing ideas and values of black Americans. Essentially, many minority artists co opt the language of the majority in order to express their views in a way that will be well received). In Brooks’ case, it’s more difficult to express innovative ideas about gender, sexuality, and ethnicity using a language that audiences are unable or unwilling to interpret.
It seems a bit fast to lay naturalistic, figurative painting to rest when we have not yet fully explored the conceptual implications of the works included. To end all traditionally-inspired figure painting with the modernists would mean an art world in which women were still used as decoration and lesbian sexuality still layed low. Often we fall into the trap of simply forgetting that there are new ways of thinking (often already existing but unknown to the majority of people) that have yet to be expressed in traditional, western styles of art. We must keep an open mind to artists who are being conservative in one sense yet innovative in another.
In any case, Brooks is a very skilled painter who imbues her figures with psychological meaning. Let’s take a look at her work:
And I’ve saved the best for last…
In addition to her large collection of paintings, Romaine Brooks took up drawing in her later life. These are a fascinating look into her psychology as well as being beautiful drawings. You can see many of them here. I’m lucky to be interning at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Luce Center where we have two of Romaine Brooks’ paintings on display. Stop by and see them sometime!
What do you think? Are Brooks’ works innovative or just imitative? Do you know of any artists working today whose work is prematurely dismissed as old fashioned? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.