The Lesbian Hero’s Journey
Romaine Brooks: A Life
By Cassandra Langer
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015, 288 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Abe Louise Young
Romaine Brooks’s most famous paintings depict solitary female figures in masculine clothes. Their subjects are serious and unsmiling, brimming with sexual power and emotional untouchability. The color palette is strict: tonal black, white, and gray, with occasional shocking touches of red. More often than not, the figures focus on something in the distance, outside of the frame. Born in 1874, Brooks inserted a lesbian gaze and radical new examples of gendered self-invention into portraiture.
Romaine Brooks, by Cassandra Langer, is a book with a dual mission. The first is to forge a positive narrative about an artist described by her previous biographer, Meryle Secrest, as a product of “lesbian personality disorder.” The second is to stake a claim for Brooks as a major modernist painter whose genius has been overlooked due to sexism, miscategorization as a symbolist, and exaggeration of her fascist sympathies.
Using new research, Langer makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Brooks’s character and concerns. She describes Brooks’s life as one enacted almost entirely outside of traditional romantic structures and with zero concern for feminine ideals. Langer uncovered a French biography of Elizabeth (Lily) de Gramont—known previously as the lover of the lesbian writer Natalie Barney, a wealthy American who lived most of her life in Paris—that radically expands what we know about Brooks’s sexual and love relationships. Langer reveals for the first time the details of the extraordinary open marriage shared by Brooks, Barney, and de Gramont—some forty years of polyamorous intimacy in a form they invented privately and let evolve organically.
Langer also draws upon previous biographies, archival material, letters, journals, memoirs, and a stunning 44 years of her own research to present Brooks anew. According to Brooks’s memoirs and letters, she survived a loveless childhood with a detached, mentally ill mother and brother, and without secure attachments. She was married briefly and had a child whom she gave up to a convent. After her short marriage, Brooks, who inherited an enormous fortune, kept company with many different women, including Winnaretta Singer, the Singer Sewing Machine heiress, and later, Barney. Together, she and Barney, with a combined fortune of about $300 million in today’s dollars, owned multiple properties and lived lives of luxury. Brooks insisted that they maintain separate residences, which she believed kept their passion alive—although they rode out World War II together in their villa in the Italian countryside. Barney helped Brooks in innumerable ways, including (unsuccesfully) working to get Brook’s memoir, No Pleasant Memories, published and ensuring that her major works were secured in the Smithsonian collection.
Both the admirable and challenging aspects of Romaine Brooks’s personality are rendered clearly: she was a highly sensitive, elitist, contrarian individualist. She held anti-Semitic views despite the fact that her lifelong partner had Jewish roots. She lived for high art and style, forging a distinctive look in both her paintings and home environments. She never compromised. Her love affair with Barney flourished intensely for four decades until Brooks, at age 96, abruptly ended all contact. Barney was heartbroken and distraught until her death.
The strength of this biography is its deep examination of Brooks’s intimate relationships. However, it is on less steady ground in handling motivation and intention. For example, Langer attributes Brooks’s choice to end her relationship with Barney to her desire to remain forever loved:
She decided to cut off relations with Natalie so that she would never lose the love of a lifetime … By breaking off all communication at the age of ninety-six, Brooks reasoned that she could now let go of all that still tied her to life and prepare herself to die assured of Natalie’s eternal desire, devotion and love.
Without original source material suggesting this interpretation, it’s hard to accept; it would have been more satisfying if Langer had admitted, We don’t exactly know why. As a reader, I became restless with the way Langer tries to dissolve questions about Brooks’s motives and beliefs before they arise. She is invested in defending Brooks against potential negative judgments. This presents a formidable challenge, since biography may serve best when it allows contradictions to exist without trying to solve them.
Much has been written about the American expatriate Parisian writers and artists of the 1920s and ̓30s, whose anti-Semitism and loathing of the underclasses must be digested alongside their bodies of work. Langer argues that although Brooks identified with the right wing and admired Mussolini, she was less of a fascist than Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, or the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio—a close friend—and that we should see Brooks’s bigoted beliefs as predictable products of her upbringing. She calls Brooks “politically immature.” This may be the case, but not acknowledging Brooks’s responsibility for her negative views of poor people and Jews risks giving them the shine of validity.
Langer writes, “[Brooks] misread Fascism as a nationalistic movement in support of social elites, not military dictators, whose aim was to restore peace through imperialism through prioritizing culture.” She insists that Brooks’s views should not influence her reputation or significance as an artist. In the current American climate of rising hate crime and debate over nationalism and oligarchy, however, such rationalization feels dangerous. Langer argues,
The United States … is perhaps unique in insisting that the personal is political. Romaine Brooks and the European society she lived in would not agree that being tolerant and politically correct, both in private and in public, define civilized people.
If I were to read this biography again, I would read it backward. A rush of new ideas about camp and dandyism is compressed into Langer’s conclusion, which also includes information that it would have been helpful to hold in mind while reading, such as this:
For a lesbian to portray a criminalized subculture and make it fashionable and desirable was no mean feat, and Romaine Brooks was kind of a rock star of her era, accomplishing this feat with a flare that remains unparalleled. How did she manage it? The answer may simply be fashion.
I hope that at some point a queer theorist will take up Brooks’s life, using this text as a stepping stone toward analyzing the transgressive gender codes that are at the core of Brooks’s aesthetic, with its focus on androgynous, even masculine female figures. Langer points to the exciting investigative work that remains to be accomplished, since at least eight of the paintings described in Brooks’s letters and notebooks, as well as her many journals and sketchbooks, have not yet been found.
Langer explores Brooks’s emotional attachments and the cultural landscape she both contributed to and sought refuge from. She describes both Brooks’s unwavering monochromatic style and her creative process, which flourished best within a small, protective circle of relationships. She expands our knowledge of the Parisian salon scene with a portrait of a significant personality who hovered uneasily at its edges. The swirling lesbian expat culture in France and Italy is endlessly fascinating, as are the many ways community connections were both forged and broken. In the end, Romaine Brooks redeems its weaknesses by making a major contribution toward correcting the graver view of Brooks insisted upon in previous biographies.
Langer writes, “Brooks deliberately created the role she intended to play in the narrative of her own life: the role of female hero.” Langer analyzes that role and ultimately inscribes Romaine Brooks more solidly in both U.S. art history and lesbian/queer history.
Abe Louise Young is an author and educator whose work focuses on creativity, social change, and the lives of women and girls. Her recent chapbook is Heaven to Me (2016).