This September, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College proudly presents The Art of Romaine Brooks, a retrospective exhibition of a remarkable and under-acknowledged 20th century American artist. The exhibition comes to the Polk Museum following its acclaimed presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2016. An unmatched opportunity for our patrons and our region, the Polk Museum is the second and — at this point — the only other venue to host the show since its debut in Washington, D.C. The exhibition features 18 paintings and 32 drawings from the Smithsonian’s collection, which holds nearly half of Brooks’ complete corpus.
Best known for her subtly monochromatic portraiture of women, Brooks (1874-1970) was herself an extraordinary woman and artist, simultaneously far ahead of her time but also emblematic of the period in which she lived and its expectations of women and how they should behave. An American expatriate in Paris, Brooks was a key figure in the strident counterculture of the 1920s, a leading light in an emerging orbit of outliers and bohemians, many of whom were artists and, like Brooks, many of whom were gay. Just one look at the way Brooks presented herself publicly and in her own self-portraiture reveals a woman who refused to be held to millennia-old norms of femininity and gender.
Indeed, her striking 1923 self-portrait in the exhibition introduces us to Brooks and her unapologetic affirmation of herself: set against a gray sky above and seaside townscape below, the portrait depicts Brooks in a man’s hat, black coat, and gloves, her pale gray skin warmed only by the pop of red in her lips and a faint hint of blush on her cheeks. A master-class in grisaille (that is, painting in gray tones), the portrait showcases not merely Brooks’ preference for masculine attire but also her profound ability to convey mood and personality in paint.
In many ways, Brooks seems to fit the common image of the anti-establishment ethos of the so-called “Roaring Twenties,” especially as young women began to become more independent and American expatriates escaped to Europe in the time of Prohibition. In other ways, however, Brooks represents a marginalized element of that same counterculture, one that flourished on the outer edges of popular histories of the era. The very act of Brooks’ departing from the norms of the period underlines the standards to which most other women of her class still hewed. We would not see the attire or overall appearances of Brooks’ women as notable but for their being distinct from the long-accepted standards of women’s dress and comportment.
Brooks was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in Rome to wealthy American parents, but, after her parents divorced and her father abandoned the family when she was still a child, Brooks’ mother took the artist and her two siblings to live in New York City. By seven years old, suffering in an abusive household and with her mother’s focus on Brooks’ mentally disabled younger brother, Brooks was sent to live with a foster family in a city tenement; the plush upbringing she had known briefly was now replaced for a time with abject poverty. Following stints in boarding and convent schools, arranged eventually by her grandfather, a baron of the mining industry, Brooks took the reins of her own life in hand and moved to Paris at 19 years old.
Although she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in 1897, Brooks left the child in the care of a convent before pursuing her passion for art. It was rare in that period for a female art student to be able to take life classes, but she found an academy in Rome where she could study from the real human form alongside male students (albeit not without provocation from them).
Pioneering on so many levels, Brooks also faced the realities of turn-of-the-century America and Europe. For a woman — and an unmarried woman without money at that — the prospects for an autonomous existence were slim; moreover, for Brooks to survive as an artist, independent wealth was even more essential. At 28 years old, after the death of her mother and her multimillionaire grandfather, Brooks was left with her share of the family estate, granting her the financial comfort she would need. Although secure in her finances and in her own confidence as a woman able to operate on her own, Brooks married her friend John Ellington Brooks in 1903. While she retained his name for the remainder of her life, the marriage was not romantic — both were homosexual — and they separated after only a year.
By that time, Brooks was fashioning a new, more truthful persona for herself, from the outward androgynous appearance in which felt most comfortable and the companions around whom she surrounded herself to the style and subject matter of the art she wanted to produce. Unlike many other artists in Europe at the start of the 20th century who were trying to re-define and push the boundaries of modern art (think Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, etc.), Brooks marked a different tack. In particular, her muted palettes recall those of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who was heralded (and derided) by many in his lifetime for his visual “symphonies” and “arrangements” of blacks, whites, and grays in portraits of his sitters, including that most famous one of his mother.
While Brooks’ inclination toward monochromatic portrait painting places her outside the trends of contemporary art of her time, her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1910 earned her quick acclaim. Brooks took the female form as her subject, wresting it from the male artistic gaze of the past, and reintroduced it from her uniquely progressive perspective. The sitters in Brooks’ portraits are the women of the circle in which she moved — women who relied on men neither for livelihood nor love — and many sport the closely-cropped hair and more conventionally masculine clothing that characterize Brooks as both of and ahead of her time.
In fact, when one thinks of women of the 1920s, one might conjure an image of a flapper. Flappers are often envisioned as defiantly non-conforming, Jazz-loving women with bobbed hair, high-hemline dresses, and shovel hats. To be certain, Brooks was no flapper, but she would seem to share with flappers the refusal to look and behave in a womanly manner prescribed to them by others. Moreover, the androgynous look and preference for masculine attire shared by Brooks, her friends, and her lovers actually echoes the original concept of what a “flapper” was — women who often wore men’s overcoats, wide-brimmed hats, and broke gender conventions — which was far afield from the more iconic “feminine” flapper style popularized by Coco Chanel and Zelda Fitzgerald around 1923.
While best known for her portraits, Brooks exposes herself to viewers in other more intimate ways through the drawings in the exhibition. An under-recognized forerunner of Surrealist automatism, Brooks had experimented as early as the 1890s with the instinctive style of her drawings from the 1930s. Looking at her measured, academically rendered portraiture, one might never suspect this, but Brooks’ drawings reveal an entirely different dimension of the artist’s output. The muted tones and filled compositional spaces of her paintings give way to greater simplicity in the line drawings that form the second half of the show. The elegance of the independent women in the portraits is re-engineered in the drawings into the elegance of the artist’s hand as a draftswoman and the sinuousness of the human form. The drawings offer viewers entry in the artist’s psyche, much as the paintings do into her outer world in the decades prior.
Through Brooks’ life and work — and her defining both according to her own terms — visitors to this exhibition can gain an exceptional glimpse at how a pioneering artist responded to the social and cultural strictures of the early 20th century. That the manner in which Brooks produced her art and portrayed herself and her circle seems so unusual and so avant-garde to us today speaks to our own limited visions of life and art of the first few decades of the 20th century. The Art of Romaine Brooks gives all of us an exciting chance to return to that world from a new perspective and to appreciate it through a new, more inclusive lens.
— H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D., Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions