Glimpse through the door into Palazzo Fortuny’s winter exhibition, ‘Romaine Brooks: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs’, and you see a self portrait by the American painter looking pensively past the entrance. To the left is Brooks’s famed La Primavera (c.1910-13), featuring the dancer Ida Rubenstein, the artist’s then-lover, her gaze directed towards Brooks. Though we stand between the two, we are not party to their communion. Moving inside, many of the other personalities who populate Brooks’s works emerge through the low light, arranged, in typical Palazzo Fortuny style, alongside items by Mariano Fortuny (the Spanish designer who, in the early 20th century, transformed the Palazzo into his ‘think-tank’) and a hoard of artefacts from different cultures.
Describing herself as a lapidée (literally: a victim of stoning, an outsider), at the height of her career Brooks was prominent in the intellectual and cosmopolitan community that moved between Capri, Paris and London in the early 1900s. Brook’s best known images depict androgynous women in desolate landscapes or monochromatic interiors, their protagonists undeterred by our presence, either staring relentlessly at us or gazing nonchalantly past. Her subjects of this time include anonymous models, aristocrats, lovers and friends, all portrayed in her signature ashen palette. Rejecting contemporary artistic trends such as cubism and fauvism, Brooks favoured the symbolist and aesthetic movements of the 19th century, particularly the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Her ability to capture the expression, glance or gaze of her sitters prompted critic Robert de Montesquiou to describe her, in 1912, as ‘the thief of souls’.
Born in 1874 to wealthy American parents who separated shortly after her birth, it was art and particularly drawing that provided Brooks with a retreat from what she describes in her memoirs, pointedly titled No Pleasant Memories (c.1938), as a ‘particularly unhappy’ childhood characterized by a lack of maternal affection. Art became a lifelong outlet for her ‘demons’. A number of drawings spanning 1890–1935, presented in two intimate side rooms, reveal a style that is markedly different to that of her painting: continuous curved lines, reminiscent of surrealist or mediumistic automatism, trace angels, animals and monsters grappling with dwarfed human figures – images that, Brooks noted, ‘evolved from the subconscious without premeditation’.
In 1895, when legally independent, Brooks enrolled at Rome’s Accademia di Belle Arti as the only female student. Leaving in 1899, after receiving unwelcome male attention, she settled in Capri where she discovered a community of aesthetes and other outsiders – one of whom, John Brooks, she married in 1903 after inheriting a fortune from her recently deceased brother and mother. A marriage of convenience, the union provided both some protection from insinuations about their sexuality.
After an interlude in St Ives in the UK, where she honed her ‘endless gamut of greys’, Brooks spent the next 20 years between London, Capri and Paris producing the series of portraits that would make her name. In 1909 she met exiled Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, seeing in him another lapidé, and the pair became lifelong friends. Brooks’s renowned, mantled portrait of him, The Poet in Exile (1912), prompted D’Annunzio to describe her as ‘the most profound and wise orchestrator of greys in modern painting’. Brooks met Rubinstein, who would become her most painted subject and an aesthetic ideal, in 1911. Of her Weeping Venus (1917) – a response to the atrocities of World War I – she wrote: ‘Who other than Ida Rubinstein with her fragile and androgynous beauty could suggest the passing away of familiar gods?’ In 1914, Brooks met American-born writer Natalie Clifford-Barney. Despite Barney being avowedly non-monogamous and Brooks continually seeking solitude, they embarked on a love affair lasting 50 years. The tenderness of their relationship is evident in Brooks’s 1920 painting of Barney, portraying the poet as calm and sage.
This tone of self-assured sobriety unites Brooks’s paintings and drawings, showing them to be two sides of the same practice. As one critic of her 1923 self-portrait commented: ‘She’s watching you before you get close enough to look at her. She’s not passively inviting your approach; she’s deciding whether you’re worth bothering with.’
First published in Issue 179