Polk Museum of Art Opens Smithsonian American Art Museum Exhibition of Romaine Brooks

The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College presents “The Art of Romaine Brooks,” an exhibition on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which opens Sept. 28.

At a time when women around the Western world were beginning to break conventions and rules, Brooks crafted an androgynous appearance and a unique artistic voice that challenged beliefs of how women should look and behave. This exhibition includes 18 paintings and 32 drawings, some of which have not been seen in decades.

As an expatriate living in Paris, Brooks was a pioneering artist — in subject matter and in style — adopting in her paintings of women a muted color palette consisting primarily of black, white and various subtle shades of gray, ochre, umber or red, reminiscent of fellow American expatriate master James McNeill Whistler, whose paintings she admired, said Dr. Alex Rich, PMA’s curator and director of galleries and exhibitions. Rich also is an art history professor at Florida Southern.

“On one level, these works provide a glimpse into what people might envision when they think of the increasing independence of women in the 1920s,” Rich said. “The show reflects a time when many women of all classes and nationalities, especially American women who had the freedom to live abroad, were finding ways to break free of their traditional roles. On a deeper level, though, Brooks’ portrait subjects also reflect a lesser-known subculture of outliers and bohemians, many of whom were artists and, like Brooks, many of whom were gay.”

Born in Rome, Italy to wealthy American parents in 1874, Brooks spent most of her life in Paris. She focused on portraiture, which reflected Modernist elements in many ways, and her subjects frequently were her circle of strong, independent female friends. 

Included in this exhibition is Brooks’ 1917 portrait of Russian dancer, actress and art patron Ida Rubinstein. Another exhibition highlight is her 1923 self-portrait. 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 is warmed only by the pop of red in her lips and a faint hint of blush on her cheeks. 

The exhibition runs through Dec. 9, and the museum is hosting several related events. Art historian and critic Cassandra Langer, who became Brooks’ accidental biographer through her search to uncover the artist’s aesthetics, will give a free lecture Oct. 13 at noon.

The Members Reception is scheduled for Sept. 28 at 6:30 p.m. It is free for PMA members and $10 for nonmembers.


“The Art of Romaine Brooks” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum's traveling exhibition program, “Treasures to Go.”