National Museum of Women in the Arts

Washington, DC




Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks


"Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks," the first major retrospective in over 30 years to showcase the work of this American expatriate artist, will be presented by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) from June 29 to September 24, 2000. In this comprehensive study, Brooks's art will be seen in the context of her sexuality and identity. Fifty-four works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be combined with 50 paintings, drawings, photographs, and sketch books, many previously unavailable for viewing, from public and private collections in France.

Brooks (1874-1970) lived and worked in Paris for most of her life. She focused on the single human figure, and was called the "Thief of Souls" by poet and friend Count Robert de Montesquiou because of her psychologically penetrating portrait style. The exhibition comprises four main sections: portraits; self-portraits; images of Ida Rubinstein, Brooks's intimate partner for three years; and drawings.

"Amazons in the Drawing Room" looks at how Brooks's concern with issues of identity influenced her art. Three main elements shaped her work: her place in elite European social circles; her involvement in the homosexual literary and artistic culture of Paris; and her feelings about her childhood. Her art is seen as a significant record of early-20th-century European literary and artistic culture, and provides an important link between portraiture, the American expatriate experience, and aspects of homosexuality. (left: La France Croiseée (The Cross of France), 1914, oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 33 1/2 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the artist)

NMWA guest curator and Carleton College Professor Joe Lucchesi says that Brooks's works are also a visual record of the changing status of women in society and of how Brooks did not conform to the social order of the day. Her rebellious nature can be seen in her paintings of nudes, not traditionally the subject of women artists at that time, and in the androgynous appearance of some of her portraits.

In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue Lucchesi writes: "Brought together in the current exhibition, Brooks's art provides a powerful art historical link between portraiture, the American expatriate experience, and the "homosexual subject" in early twentieth-century art which is of interest to artistic, intellectual, and popular audiences today. My strongest hope is that this exhibition will unveil fresh angles for historical investigations into sexual, gender, and artistic identity in the early twentieth century, and that it will offer a more nuanced understanding of Brooks's artistic project--her interests, stylistic range, and thematic concerns. Finally, because the fixing and unfixing of identity has become such a pervasive concern in contemporary art, from artists as various as Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, and Matthew Barney (to name only a few), I also hope that Romaine Brooks's investigations will stimulate a rethinking of the historical limits and possibilities of such visual negotiations of identity." (left: Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, 59 1/2 x 107 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the artist)

During her relationship with Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein, Brooks produced many portraits of her partner. These include La France Croiseée (The Cross of France, 1914), in which patriotic heroism is portrayed by a figure cloaked in black bearing the insignia of the Red Cross, and Le Trajet (The Crossing, 1911), portraying an image of female sexuality and morbidity. Also included is Ida Rubinstein (1917), in which her windswept figure, again wrapped in a black cloak, is the image of Brooks's romantic ideal. (left: Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 26 7/8 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the artist)

Also concerned with her own image, Brooks produced a number of works that reflect the continuous searching and exploring of her identity. In a 1923 self-portrait, she is dressed in stylish masculine attire, complete with riding hat. In the early 1930s, Brooks turned almost completely away from painting and toward drawing. These dreamlike line drawings express themes that she derived from symbolist literature and poetry, and include the spiritual and metaphysical worlds, the merging of humans and animals, and the complexities of human relationships. She also explored these themes in her unpublished autobiography, No Pleasant Memories.

Brooks (née Goddard) was born in Rome in 1874 to prosperous American parents. In her autobiography, Brooks writes that she had a difficult childhood. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and at age six Brooks was left with a washerwoman in New York by her mother. Rescued by her mother's family, she was placed in private schools in the U.S. and Europe. In 1902, she married John Ellingham Brooks, a British pianist and homosexual, and adopted the facade of propriety in exchange for a promise of independence. The marriage lasted a year.

Brooks had her first exhibition in Paris in 1910, where she was acknowledged as a painter of distinction and commended for paintings of elegance and subtlety. A 1925 exhibition of her work, on view in Paris, London, and New York, confirmed Brooks's reputation as an accomplished portrait painter. By the late 1930s, she had become focused exclusively on her autobiography. Brooks became increasingly reclusive and retreated to her home in southern France, where she died in 1970 at the age of 96.

"Amazons in the Drawing Room" is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. and the Gaea Foundation. Additional support is provided by the members of NMWA. The Smithsonian's American Art Museum has lent 54 artworks to the exhibition and tour as part of its national collection-sharing program while the museum building is being renovated.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a 144-page illustrated catalogue, published by University of California Press and Chameleon Books of Chesterfield in association with NMWA. It will be available in the museum shop and by mail order (call 1.800.222.7270). After Washington, the exhibition will be on display at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives from October 11, 2000 to January 21, 2001.

Read more about the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Resource Library Magazine

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/2/11

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