Romaine Brooks, “thief of souls”.

Self-portrait, Romaine Brooks.

An edited excerpt from a lecture I gave on Romaine Brooks.

Romaine was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in Rome in 1874. Her parents were intitally well off, thanks to her maternal grandfather, the multi-millionaire Isaac S. Waterman. However, her alcoholic father, Major Henry Goddard, abandoned the family in New York having squandered his wife Ella’s fortune. The events that followed were brutal and improbable, like an unpleasant fairytale.

Broke and desperate, Ella fostered Romaine and her mentally-ill brother, St Mar, to a poor family who lived in a New York tenement. The foster mother, a laundress, would care for the children in exchange for a small monthly allowance. Ella quickly absconded and the payments ceased. The laundress continued to care for the children, though neither she nor Romaine knew of the existence of the rich, Waterman grandfather. Eventually, Isaac Waterman died and left Romaine a considerable fortune. This, though it set her up for the rest of her life, did not heal the early damage. Ella reappeared of course – and Romaine felt obliged to look after her despite the early chronicle of abuse. Luckily for Romaine, the nightmare ended when Ella died of diabetes in 1901. The emotional scars, unsurprisingly, proved indelible.

Following Ella’s death, Romaine moved to England for a while where she married a homosexual English friend, John Brooks, an  struggling pianist and translator. It is not clear from her memoirs or from other accounts exactly why she made this retrograde decision, though some speculate that it was merely to fill the hungry vacuum left by Ella. The couple went to live in Capri, a sunnier and more optimistic backdrop than chilly London, and something of a lesbian colony, which made it the ideal place for Romaine to come to terms with her sexuality.

Before long, Romaine summoned the presence of mind to abandon Brooks, who had started to talk disconcertingly about “our” money, simultaneously laying down the law about what she should and shouldn’t wear. Romaine was by now deeply settled in her trilby, trousers and tweeds routine, something that dismayed Brooks, despite his devil-may-care bohemian surface credo. Though broke in practical terms, he could still jingle the dwindling loose change of  middle-class propriety. After she left him, he stayed in Capri, where he ended up living with E. F. Benson for a while, a cosy if unglamorous fate.

Una, Lady Troubridge. Burning intensity against cool backdrops.

Romaine, now unencumbered, set about refining her art, focusing primarily on portraiture. Up to now, she had dabbled indecisively at various art schools in Paris and New York, and spent some time at the fashionable English artistic colony in St Ives, Cornwall. After some early experimentation with light and colour, she settled on the predominantly grey and neutral palette that is the defining feature of her work. Art historians have said this neutral scheme is a method of blurring the demarcation lines of gender. However, since many of Romaine’s sitters are women dressed in men’s clothing, or have short haircuts and an openly masculine demeanour, one might say that the lines of gender were sufficiently blurred by her choice of subject matter and required no supporting colour scheme. The cool backdrops really do seem more of a theatrical device – she was an accomplished interior designer, of her own apartments and those of carefully chosen friends – to show off the intensely-observed faces and poses of her sitters. As to this intensity, Robert de Montesquiou, who knew Romaine and her work well, described her as a “thief of souls”. This was a pin-sharp insight, an allusion to the tribal belief that to make an image of a person is to rob them of their vital essence. There is indeed something unmistakably sinister and predatory in Romaine’s portraiture, an unsettling impression that the act of painting was akin to an act of revenge, not necessarily on the sitter, but on life itself: she painted angry pictures. It is easy to see why. Referring to her vandalised childhood and her dysfunctional relationship with her mother and brother, she described herself as “lapidée”. It is a forceful word, meaning “stoned”, as in one who is being stoned to death. This perception of herself does much to explain the perpetual climate of defiance and aggression pervading both her art and her life. For every stone cast, she hurled two back.

Taking all that into account, and considering her lugubrious good looks, one can imagine that falling in love with her was very easy and very dangerous. Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, fell for her, but though she was better equipped than most to deal with Romaine’s complexity, she was the kind of person who preferred to move on, rather than face the interlocking neuroses of a grand passion for too long. Romaine eventually fell in love with Natalie Clifford Barney, another fractured but highly resourceful soul. They were together, despite occasional and predictably dramatic bust-ups, for nearly half a century. Romaine painted an unusually, if not uniquely, tender portrait of Natalie in 1909. For once, anger does not intrude. Here was a soul kissed, not stolen. Romaine died in Nice in 1970 at the age of 96. She wrote her own epitaph: “Here remains Romaine, who Romaine remains.”

Natalie Barney. An unusually tender portrait.

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