Painter of Femmedrogyny
by Erica Stratton
Romaine Brooks lived a kind of queer artists’ fairy tale. She grew up in unbelievable hardship–born out of wedlock to a distant mother and caretaker to a brother whose mental illness caused him to scream and see visions. She had to fight to get a small scholarship to study music and art in England, where she was so poor she took a job singing in a cabaret.
Then, when Brooks was 28, her mother died and left her the entire family fortune. With this new-found freedom, Brooks cut her hair short and donned men’s clothing for a walking tour of England. Though it was to become a fashionable norm for women many years later, few women wore pants at this time, and her own androgynous style foreshadowed her later works.
For the rest of her life, Romaine Brooks created paintings of the intellectual women who surrounded her. She became well-known for her Self-Portrait (pictured above), Peter, A Young English Girl, and many other portraits of androgynous figures whose gaze or gender challenge the viewer’s assumptions. Many of them are pictured alone, in gloomy landscapes contrasting sharply with the pinks and reds of flesh or clothing details. Brooks favored a subdued palette of blacks and grays for most of her career. Once, when some art critics came to visit, she showed them her day’s work, which was entirely made up of little squares of cardboard covered in shades of grey. Because her wealth freed her from having to worry about selling her work, she often painted portraits that made cutting parodies of her subject, mocking their style or social status.
Brooks lived most of her life with her companion Natalie Clifford Barney, a polyamorous lesbian novelist. They met at the beginning of World War II and continued the relationship for 50 years. Brooks died at 95.