Do you know who she is?
Because before this year neither did I! During the final stages of last semester, my art history class required me to write a research paper about a female artist (the class was Women in Art). I remember glazing over Romaine Brooks in my art history class last year… after all, I learned that there really wasn’t that much to know about her until 2015 when she was rediscovered by art historian Dr. Cassandra Langer. I was initially captivated by Romaine for the same reasons Dr. Langer was… the presentation of herself in her 1924 Self Portrait is absolutely striking.
There is esoterism to it that is unique to this piece, representing a fraction of the mystery that was Romaine Brooks. Her gaze is shrouded and analytical, there is a cunning feeling to this piece as though she is looking more at the viewer than the viewer is looking at her. That, however, is precisely the nature of Brooks. In life, she was typically on the fringes of things looking in, producing what I would consider “outsider” art and even prototypical surrealism before its rise to popularity in the early 20th century.
Romaine worked in color harmonics as well, her monochromatic palette, typically composed of white, grey, black, ochre, and blue, influencing everything from her image-making to her home décor color choices.
The image here depicts a ruined town… perhaps an indication that Romaine was a survivor of some kind. Her life was filled with struggle, idiosyncrasies, and confusion, but her power as a person and ability to wrestle with these parts of her life is evident in her work. Romaine was an open lesbian in multiple parts of the world where it was heavily shunned, exploring non-traditonal relationships in multiple forms.
Dr. Cassandra Langer compares her personality to David Bowie in the sense that she was more than just her images, she also carefully crafted her own personality in meaningful ways. She was an individual unlike any other for her day, dressing in masculine attire and strolling the streets of Paris as a Flaneur, drinking in the sights of modernity. Even though she would often dress in masculine-looking clothes, her pieces were still tailored to her body specifically, and she is still very much a woman in the painting. Her face is powdered and her lips are reddened. Here she is not necessarily trying to flag herself, or even her sexuality, but more than anything it is an honest presentation of her… which still tells us very little about her true inner narrative.
Romaine’s life was filled with such a broad array of experiences that it would be unjust to try to cover it in a blog post. Her wikipedia page is a captivating read, but if reading’s not your thing check out Dr. Langer’s lecture for the American Smithsonian Museum below.