The Art of Romaine Brooks
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Romaine Brooks (1874–1970) was an expatriate American who circulated among the most refined circles in Paris, London, and Capri during times of dynamic change. Her most active professional period, from 1910 to 1925, was one of political and cultural upheaval, punctuated by World War I. As an heir to a mining fortune, Brooks enjoyed a degree of independence unusual for women of the era. She had complete control over her professional life, including the subjects she chose, how she painted them, and where she exhibited, and used her autonomy and privilege to challenge convention.
As a lesbian living in Europe, Brooks grounded her creative life in a culturally and legally marginalized subculture of women whose wealth and class afforded them opportunities to transgress social norms. As for most women of her era, this meant reclaiming herself and her erotic life. As she declared in the epitaph she wrote herself: “Here remains Romaine, who Romaine remains.”
By the early 1930s, Brooks devoted her attention almost entirely to creating a psychologically complex body of images that was influenced by her own life and inflected by the piercing fantasies associated with the emerging surrealist movement. She produced these images while working on her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories, which chronicles her traumatic childhood with an abusive mother and mentally ill brother. Themes of captivity, struggle, entanglement, and exile echo passages in her manuscript; ideas, dreams, and emotional states are embodied in archetypal figures. Brooks acknowledged their autobiographical origins. The drawings, she wrote, “evolve from the subconscious. . . . Whether inspired by laughter, philosophy, sadness or death, [each image is] imprisoned within the inevitable encircling line.”