🌐 WOMEN’S STORIES _ Romaine Brooks

By Miranda Bain,
The Heroine Collective


Artist Romaine Brooks moved among the wealthy, lesbian social circles
of 1920s Paris. Living in the world of Picasso and Matisse, Brooks has been
largely forgotten by mainstream culture. Yet, her contribution was an important
one. She was a complicated artist who defied convention both in terms of
her lesbianism, and in her radical artistic output which subverted the
male gaze in an almost pre-modern figurative style.
I grasped
every occasion no matter how small, to assert my independence of views
Born in
1874, Brooks had an unhappy childhood, plagued by physical and emotional abuse.
She later excoriated it in her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories. Her
biographer Cassandra Langer summarises it thus: “Brooks had a Gothic childhood
replete with a mad cousin in the attic, an abusive and cruel mother, a
conservative and cold sister and an insane brother.” In 1893, when suffering
neglect from her family while they lived peripatetically in Europe, she
decided to escape to Paris.
some time living and studying in Paris – then later Rome and Capri – Brooks
inherited a large sum of money on her mother’s death. This gave the artist the
financial independence she needed to pursue the development of her craft.
After a brief marriage to gay pianist John Ellingham Brooks in 1903 –
the motives of which still perplex scholars today – she embraced her lesbianism
and increasingly eschewed the physicality of feminine stereotypes in her
artistic work.
She was
one of the first modern artists to depict women’s resistance to patriarchal
representations of the female in art… She understood that women in art had been
treated as objects rather than subjects. She made it her mission to change all

Cassandra Langer
By 1910,
Brooks was a confident artist, working in her – now recognisable – grey
palette. She returned to Paris and put on her first ever solo show at the
Gallery Durand-Ruel. Amongst thirteen paintings, White Azaleas was
the piece that caused a stir. It depicts a nude woman reclining in front of a
series of Japanese style prints, a large bunch of white azaleas beside her.
This nude is remarkable for the subject’s nonchalance: she gazes into the
distance, not seemingly making any concerted effort to entice the viewer.
This painting has often been likened to Manet’s Olympia and Goya’s La maja
desnuda. Whereas these paintings use devices to directly engage the viewer –
and sexually appeal – through pose and eye contact, Brooks rejects the male
gaze. Her painting is radical because it alludes to lesbian desire without
making eroticism the sole focus of the piece. She does not prioritise the
figure, who is simply part of a scene in which the white flowers stand out
among an austere monochrome palette. This indifference to the viewer
pervades her art – in particular, her portraits.
Brooks began a lifelong relationship with writer Natalie Barney in 1915, she
was thrown into a social circle of “sexually and financially independent
expatriate women in Paris.” She painted many of them during the 1920s. Indeed,
when Truman Capote visited the artist’s studio in the 1940s he (somewhat
tactlessly) touted it “the all-time ultimate gallery of all the famous dykes from
1880 to 1935 or thereabouts.”
her career, Brooks painted women, and in doing so, molded a new shape for the
21st century lesbian — sometimes sexual, sometimes not, sometime masculine,
sometimes feminine, and not really all too concerned about your prognosis.
Priscilla Frank
portrait of British artist Gluck, entitled Peter, a Young English Girl, is
beautifully androgynous. Like many of her contemporaries, Gluck had cropped
hair and wore men’s suits as an indication of her sexuality. From a distance,
the sitter looks like a man, but on closer inspection her sharp and delicate
features reveal a femininity. She is self-assured and poised, exquisitely
rendered with Brooks’ favoured grey hues that breathe vitality into her
1923 Self-Portrait is similarly angular, androgynous and undeterred by the
viewer. Holland Cotter remarked: “She’s not passively inviting your approach;
she’s deciding whether you’re worth bothering with. Chances are, you’re not, at
least not if you’re approaching with the conventional notions of what male and
female mean.”
much of Brooks’ art focused on individual women, she created a series of
drawings that showed a remarkable talent for the surreal. These drawings were
produced alongside her memoirs, and grapple with mythical creatures, angels and
demons. The artist noted that they “evolved from the subconscious without
premeditation.” Unity of Good and Evil (1930-34), is a whirl of restless,
curving lines. Emerging from the flurry are a sleeping mother and child, with
three serpents spitting behind. Whether or not this is the artist contending
with her fraught childhood, as has been interpreted, these drawings are
phenomenal works of art. One scholar notes that they “display a passionate
intelligence that commanded the respect and admiration of some of the foremost
critics of her time.”
works are a fascinating insight into lesbian subculture in the early twentieth
century, and looking across her incredible body of work is a reminder of the
tragic neglect she’s received from critics in the decades since her death. As
Langer describes, “I always considered her queerness paradoxically essential
and beside the point. The simple truth is she was a great artist whose work has
been misinterpreted and overlooked.”