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"Amazons in the Drawing Room:
The Art of Romaine Brooks"
2000-10-11 until 2001-01-16
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
USA United States of America
This is the first large-scale American exhibition of her work since the 1970 retrospective exhibition at the
National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the first to bring several lesser-known works from
private and public collections in Europe together with the extensive holdings of the NMAA. Along with
paintings, this comprehensive exhibition also will present drawings and rarely seen photographs,
sketchbooks, and collateral materials. Taken together, these various aspects of Brooks's work provide an
opportunity for a new assessment of her art in the light of its place within the culture of early
twentieth-century Europe, as well as its connection to ideas about identity, class, and sexuality. As these
issues are of great import to contemporary artists' concerns, a fuller understanding of Brooks's contribution is
Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) was an American born to wealthy parents in Rome. She spent virtually her
entire life in Europe, mostly in Paris, but at various crucial points also in England and Italy, where she
received her early training and arrived at her mature style. She moved in many elite social and intellectual
circles, including those composed of American expatriates, European aristocrats, artists, and homosexuals.
The international lesbian community of which she was a part included Compton and Faith Mackenzie, Renée
Vivien, Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, and Una, Lady Troubridge.
Brooks's predominant subject was portraiture, and at the center of the exhibition are stark,
gray-and-black-toned depictions of herself and her circle, which included the artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau,
poet and pro-fascist Gabriele d'Annunzio (briefly a lover and a lifelong friend), pianist Renata Borgatti,
dancer Ida Rubenstein, and Duchess Elisabeth de Gramont, among others. Brooks's so-called amazon
portraits of the 1920s, stylistically influenced by another expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler, can be
seen as the artist's bold attempt to fashion a lesbian identity for her sitters. Sometimes she presents them in
the guise of mythological ideals, as in La Chasseuresse; others are depicted as patriotic heroes, as in La
France Croisée, or as martyrs (Weeping Venus).
Between 1911 and 1914 she was intimately involved with the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubenstein,
who sat for many paintings. Nearly all of Brooks's investigations of the nude female body are of Rubenstein,
most notably White Azaleas, in which Rubenstein reclines on a sofa. According to Whitney Chadwick,
White Azaleas would prove as daring as Manet's Olympia in their simultaneous eroticizing of the female
body within the context of lesbian spectatorship and their repudiation of the conventions of the voluptuous
female nude in Western art. Nude and clothed photographs of Rubenstein are also included in the
Brooks's own image, and that with which she is most identified, is the subject of the famous Self-Portrait of
1923, in which she is attired in masculine riding habit and top hat. Several other self-portrait paintings, some
predating the 1923 painting, as well as drawings from early sketchbooks and dozens of photographic
self-portraits, provide a multifaceted look at Brooks's attempt to wed her artistic and lesbian identities in her
own self-image. (For more on this subject, see Karen Bennett's essay on page 16.)
By the end of the 1920s, Brooks had produced an extraordinary body of work in painting. Subsequently she
devoted much of her energy to drawing. An entire body of work in this medium shows another side of
Brooks. She used drawing to create fantastic conflations of humans and animals, and surrealistic
experiments in automatic writing. She is said to have understood the drawings to be psychological
Brooks made very few paintings during the 1930s and 1940s. World War II, which she sat out with her
partner Natalie Barney in a villa near Florence, Italy, forever changed the privileged world of Brooks and her
friends. Along with many other wealthy expatriates, Brooks adopted a highly conservative political stance.
When she resumed painting, she concentrated less on sexuality and more on class. Her final portrait, of
Duke Uberto Strozzi in 1961, is austere and sensitive and, in Chadwick's words, stands for the aristocratic
ideal that Brooks herself had pursued throughout her life. Brooks died at the age of 96 in Nice, France.
Amazons in the Drawing Room was organized by curator Joe Lucchesi for the National Museum of Women in
the Arts. The catalog, published by the University of California Press and available in the Museum Store,
contains essays by Lucchesi and by noted feminist art historian and professor at San Francisco State
University, Whitney Chadwick.
417/8 x 34 in.;
gift of the artist.