It’s usually about this point in the new year that I offer a rundown of interesting books appearing in the coming months. That’s up soon, but before that I wanted to look at a title which came out in September which I know will appeal to many of you, one that deals with one of the 20th century’s most intriguing and – as it turns out – misunderstood artists.
Romaine Brooks was born in 1874 to wealthy American parents in Rome, grew up largely in the US and spent much of her adult life in France, although she returned to Italy as a student and later during the Second World War. Her artistic career coincided with the first great flowering of Modernism, but her oeuvre, consisting primarily of portraits rendered in a signature grey palette, had few formal or temperamental points of intersection with the movement. She was one of a number of remarkable women, many of them American, to make the Left Bank of Paris their home in the first half of the 20th century. That group also included the writer and saloniste Natalie Barney, who was Brooks’ partner for many years, although they separated before the artist died in 1970.
Such are the bald facts of Romaine Brooks’ existence. Once you move beyond them, you soon find highly divergent accounts. Determined to put the record straight, art historian Cassandra Langer has spent many years researching the artist’s life, revealing a wealth of new material, some of which turns previous assumptions about Brooks upside down. The result of this labour of love is Romaine Brooks: A Life. It is a book with bold ambitions, one which aims to place Brooks in the pantheon of 20th century American artists. From the vital prose emerges a fully fleshed woman – complex, undeniably, but not the sour misanthrope of legend.
With Brooks’ portraits currently on show at Venice’s Palazzo Fortuny (and another show starting in Washington DC in June), this seems a perfect time to examine the artist’s life, and I’m delighted that Cassandra has agreed to discuss her book. We start by looking at Romaine’s childhood – not just a logical starting point in any biography but also because it resonates so loudly throughout her later life.
(To recap: Romaine’s father left the family early on, leaving the child to her cruel, overbearing mother and mentally ill brother. At one point her mother left her to stay with a laundress in slum conditions, and it says much about Romaine’s existence that she preferred this to her “normal” life, no matter what material advantages it might seem to offer. The title of the artist’s unpublished memoirs: No Pleasant Memories.)
James J. Conway: There is a line from one of Romaine’s letters that you quote which really took me aback. It comes rather late in her life when she is almost “courting” the photographer Carl Van Vechten as a friend. She writes: “As you know I have been fond of you & somehow I thought that perhaps you might become more fond of me if you knew what an awful life I had as a child.” Is she asking for his sympathy, begging his understanding? Was Romaine’s friendship conditional on acknowledgment of her background? What do you think is going on there?
Cassandra Langer: Romaine needed kindred spirits, especially male peers. This was because she always compared herself to her male counterparts. She sought out men who appreciated her “genius”. Van Vechten was gay, an artist and critic. She thought they could form a spiritual bond as equals. She wanted his sympathy and understanding of what she had lived through and overcome to be the artist she truly was. When he disbelieved how gothic her childhood had been she was deeply hurt and offended. She thought he would bear witness and validate how abused she had been and admire her ability to overcome such adversity. When he didn’t acknowledge her struggle, character, strength and mastery she wrote him off. She ascribed it to flaws in his character. This signified to her that he was unworthy of her friendship. She cut him off and spent several futile years trying to get him to give her back the portrait she had painted of him.
JJC: Romaine’s absentee father admired her drawings and even her mother, who initially stood in her way, recognized her undeniable talent in the end. However an independent life as an artist was highly unusual for a woman at the time. What kind of life might they otherwise have wished for her?
CL: Her father was out of the picture early on and could not risk having his wife cut off his allowance. Romaine’s mother was ambivalent, first grooming her to become a nun and then a marriageable lady. A life of servitude to some man was not what Romaine had in mind. She rebelled and made it clear to her mother that she would pursue an artist’s life.
JJC: Romaine’s paintings of young women tend to emphasize their vulnerability (La Débutante, La Jacquette Rouge). Are her own experience as an adolescent and young woman finding expression here?
CL: Romaine definitely had an agenda. Her sympathies were engaged by the vulnerability of these young women who modeled for her. She identified with them and attempted to portray them by projecting her own feelings on them. Through these portrayals she hoped to tell the world what it was like to be an innocent young woman who knew next to nothing of the world and had been sullied by it, as in her painting The White Bird.
JJC: Before she settles in Paris, Romaine appears like a character lost in the wrong film, or rather a series of wrong films, from the gothic horror of her childhood, the Roman sex farce of her artistic apprenticeship, a campy drama when she settles on Capri. When was she happiest, do you think? Was it in Paris when she first met Natalie Barney?
CL: Romaine herself tells us that she was happiest living in a run down rental studio with falling apart furniture and a dog named Marco. She was poor and had to earn money by painting portraits and still lifes. Many of her lost paintings are from this period.
JJC: You emphasize not just the relatively well-known bond between Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, but the triangle that further encompassed Lily de Gramont. Barney and Gramont entered a marriage contract (they even honeymooned at Niagara Falls!), but any bond with Barney was tacit. Would it be unfair to see Romaine as a junior party to this arrangement?
CL: Yes it would be unfair. No one was a third wheel in this relationship. Rather they were equal partners. We do not know if Natalie also made a marriage contract with Romaine. We do know that she made it clear to Lily that Romaine was crucial to her and that she was not about to give her up or treat her as a sad second. Lily’s biographer, Francesco Rapazzini and I disagree on this point. It is perfectly clear despite there being no written contract between Natalie and Romaine that there was a visual one in the form of the portrait that Romaine painted in 1920 as a gift to Natalie. Romaine’s language was visual. She was at her most authentic when painting and this portrait was her pledge to Natalie. Natalie kept the painting in her Rue Jacob house. Each woman in this relationship accepted the other as an equal. Romaine painted Lily’s portrait and admired Lily. They may have even slept together. Lily wrote the 1952 essay for Romaine’s catalogue that Natalie had published. Thus the triangle was one of mutual respect and love among the partners as peers. Romaine was never “a sad second.”
JJC: You re-examine the “Florence years”, when Romaine and Natalie sat out the Second World War in Italy, and you’re adamant that Romaine didn’t, as some have claimed, have fascist tendencies. How would you characterize her politics?
CL: Romaine was a conservative like many of her class and generation. She had Jewish friends and lovers and was still bigoted when it came to communism. She identified Jews with the Russian Revolution because of her former lover Ida Rubinstein and upper-class American prejudices against Jews in general. Natalie was a quarter Jewish and in constant danger. Romaine had to do everything she could to protect her from the fascists and Nazis. At first both she and Natalie felt that Italy would never get involved in the war and they could be safe there. Then when they wanted to escape to Switzerland and meet Lily there they could not. Romaine said outright that “no artist stands for war.” She and Natalie were both pacifists, saved three Jewish lives at the risk of their own, and protected Bernard Berenson from the fascists and Nazis during the six years of war.
JJC: You’re keen to challenge Romaine’s reputation as a misanthrope, but she still comes across as someone who would only engage with the world on her own terms. Would it be fair to characterize her as an elitist, at least?
CL: Absolutely, she was an elitist who only wanted to associate with the people she considered her own kind. The question of who she defined as her own tribe remains. It had little to do with money or class but rather artistic sensibilities and an appreciation for beauty. She was a perfectionist and demanded that others appreciate this in her. She was brutally honest in her portrayals and offended people. She gave no quarter and asked for none either in her work or life.
JJC: We often think of portraitists as dependent on commissions, brushes for hire who flatter their wealthy or influential subjects, but Romaine’s inherited wealth meant she had no need to do so. Why do you think she pursued portraiture?
CL: As with many abused children she suffered from PTSD. The trauma was such that she became hyper vigilant, alert to every nuance of facial expression, every variation in tone of voice, every gesture. She was ever on the alert for the slightest hint that would reveal a person’s intent, character or lack of it. Her anxiety was such that she became an acute observer of characteristics that remained hidden under a veneer of sophistication and civility. She saw through it all and painted what many in her circle preferred to have hidden. The pettiness, meanness, vanity and selfishness, the pretentiousness. Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall’s lover is said to have seen the portrait Romaine painted of her and comment “Am I really like that?”
JJC: One thing that struck me in the book was the absence of the normal clamour of the creative professional’s life familiar to us from other artist biographies. There is almost nothing of Romaine’s interaction with other artists, especially surprising considering she lived in Paris in the first half of the 20th century. Who, if any, of her artistic contemporaries do you think she felt kinship with?
CL: If she had any close artist friends she isn’t telling. She was very secretive and rarely revealed any influences. We do know that she liked Conder paintings, bought some from him and befriended him. She collected some contemporaries including Manet, Degas and Bonnard. She admired Italian painters of the Renaissance and Mannerists such as Bronzino. This is obvious from her own paintings and although she does not mention Ingres it is clear from some of her poses that she was well aware of him, especially his Roman portraits. Whistler she thought lacked imagination.
JJC: Returning to Romaine’s paintings I was struck by the recurrence of animals alongside human subjects (Elsie de Wolfe, Natalie Barney, La Débutante, la Baronne Émile d’Erlanger, Femme avec des Fleurs); I was reminded at times of the German sculptor Renée Sintenis, who produced the most tender, beautifully modelled animal figures. What do you think was the significance of them, were they totemic figures, do they have something to say about the sitter?
CL: It is interesting that you should mention that. Many of her contemporaries referred to animals in their work, Ravel for instance. Romaine had a wicked sense of humor. She often uses animals to make comments on her sitters and their lives. You mention the Elsie de Wolfe portrait. In it she is making a tongue in cheek comment on Elsie’s lover the theatrical representative Bessie Mayberry.
JJC: You paint an evocative scene of Romaine watching the sea in Cornwall with its “endless gamut of greys”, and you also mention the influence of Whistler. What was it that drew her to this palette at a time when the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, for example, were moving toward much more vibrant shades?
CL: She wanted to simplify everything and get down to the essence of the subject. She was in a somewhat melancholy mood because of the death of her brother and mother within a year of each other, and the breakup of her friendship and marriage with John Ellingham Brooks. So she felt lost and was grieving. A monochromatic pallet suited her and in it she discovered an endless variation of grays that suited her creativity.
JJC: One thing the book really brought alive for me was the intensity and consistency of Romaine’s aesthetic vision. Her paintings of course, but also her interiors and her own appearance. The photos of her by Man Ray in what appears to be a riding jacket are incredibly chic, referencing menswear but – again – on her own terms. How did this personal style evolve? Who or what influenced her look?
CL: Romaine loved fashion. This is obvious from early photographs of her. Her mother was a fashion plate and Romaine was taught from an early age how important dress was in creating an impression. Her mother regularly criticized her dress and made her acutely aware of style. As a young woman she favored a dandy style and created her own unique look, from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. She was fastidious, sartorial and knew the power of clothing in affirming the man in her as well as the woman. She was one of the first woman artists who took advantage of creating a persona because she was at heart a true introvert who hated to appear in public and in the limelight. Thus style afforded her a camouflage for her essential shyness and discomfort in social situations, for example Natalie’s salon.
JJC: You cite Romaine’s unpublished memoirs, No Pleasant Memories. What can you tell us about the book? How does Romaine come across as a writer?
CL: Parts of the memoir were published in the 1930s, mainly about her brother, St. Mar. The manuscript is available online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art for those who wish to read it in full.
Romaine’s writing is a mosaic. She comes across as a storyteller of considerable charm and wit. Things, however, do not flow together in a seamless chronological order. No, on the contrary, they hop, skip and jump. You have to be nimble to keep up with her and fill in the gaps. This is what makes her memoir so interesting. She tells you only what she wishes you to know and the rest is secrets vaguely hinted at in elliptical ways. She will tell you about a love affair in which a jealous lover threw a pitcher of water at her and gave her a bloody nose. But never mentions the name of the woman she became lovers with. She will defend herself against society by informing you of how she has been insulted and wronged but never take any responsibility for thoughtless remarks that might have caused people to turn against her. She had a rapier wit but never intentionally meant to harm anyone, yet hurt she did.
JJC: With a number of books already published which jointly or solely address Brooks’ life, what was it in particular that inspired you to revisit her life?
CL: As a young woman I was fascinated by her resilience. I mention this in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life. My encounter with her self-portrait of 1923 took me by complete surprise. I had never seen anything like it before. I saw in her portrayal a stoicism that inspired me. It was the first time I had seen a positive representation of a lesbian.
All the books I had managed to read as a young woman presented tragic portraits of lesbians who either had to give up the women they loved (The Well of Loneliness), or ended up hanging themselves as in The Children’s Hour. The only exception was Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.
JJC: Biographers sometimes talk of a “love affair” with their subject, and you actually use that term, while others experience an intense antipathy to previously admired figures on uncovering fatal personality flaws. How would you characterize the transformation of your relationship with Romaine Brooks throughout the research and writing of the book?
CL: I am no different from most biographers. Our relationship to our subjects evolves over time and we go in and out of loving and hating them. We are never indifferent and we identify with them throughout the course of our time with them.
I started out totally enamored of Romaine. I knew nothing about her or her life. Over time I learned more than I perhaps wanted to know about her. I found her elitism distasteful, her conservatism was in direct opposition to my progressive politics, I was Jewish and she was a bigot, if not an anti-Semite. Moreover, she had been accused of being a fascist sympathizer. So I had to struggle with my own feelings about her throughout the research and writing of the book. In the end I came out still admiring her struggle and her genius but having a fuller understanding of her life choices and how little she cared about the opinions of others or felt any need to understand the politics of her times.
JJC: The Fortuny show in Venice will hopefully provide a chance to view Romaine Brooks’ body of work anew. What do you think Romaine’s place in the American art establishment is now, and where do you think it should be?
CL: Romaine Brooks should be in the pantheon of American and international art as are her peers; Sargent, Whistler, Mary Cassatt, etc. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC will open a show of her work on June 10, 2016. It is my hope that her remaining family will cooperate in facilitating a major international exhibition of Romaine in context with her peers so that people can finally appreciate her unique place in the history of art.
My heartfelt thanks to Cassandra for her time and insights. You can find Romaine Brooks: A Life here. Romaine Brooks: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs continues at the Fortuny Palace in Venice until 13 March.