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Painter Romaine Brooks Challenged Conventions In Shades Of Gray

Aug 17, 2016

Twentieth century painter Romaine Brooks introduces herself in a 1923 self-portrait: She wears a narrowly cut, long, black riding jacket with a white blouse. She has short cropped hair, and her eyes are shadowed by a black high hat. There's the slightest smudge of maybe pink on her lips — otherwise the whole portrait is black and various shades of gray.

An American who lived in Paris, Brooks conveys loneliness, strength and vulnerability, says Joe Lucchesi, consulting curator of an exhibit of Brooks' work at the Smithsonian — "a kind of careworn but very strong presence all combined in one."

Brooks painted androgynous women and depicted nudes so melancholy they'd make Renoir's pink ladies weep. She left most of her work to the American Art Museum, where her work is currently on view.

The women she paints share a severe palette and a certain mood. In their man-tailored jackets, their aesthetic sensibilities, their intense love relationships, Brooks' women moved in the artistic circles of 1920s Paris. Poets, novelists, socialites, photographers and painters, they were fashionable and rich. Their money helped insulate them from social constraints of their day.

In Brooks' case, money freed her to paint whatever and however she wanted — the unconventional, androgynous women, the limited, gloomy palette — and to ignore what her Big Guy contemporaries were doing — Picasso and Matisse, whose vivid and revolutionary canvases filled the homes of Gertrude Stein and family.

"She really painted as though Picasso and Matisse didn't exist," Lucchesi says.

Brooks' 1910 Azalées Blanches (White Azaleas) recalls Édouard Manet's 1863 Olympia.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Critics liked her, but she didn't sell much — she didn't have to. She'd inherited a fortune after a miserable childhood (her unpublished memoir is called No Pleasant Memories). And so Brooks could mix her whites and blacks into shades of grays and paint White Azaleas — her 1910 take on Édouard Manet's famous Olympia, nude reclining on couch, staring into space, as a servant brings her a huge arrangement of flowers.

Brooks sold reproductions of her 1914 La France Croisée to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

"It's wistful in some ways," says Smithsonian curator Virginia Mecklenburg. "Wistful, maybe wishful also, but there's an erotic undertone to Brooks' nudes. There is some sort of a longing ... if not [for] sexual encounter, for emotional intimacy is probably a better way to put it."

Her bare body twists in our direction — she's making herself very available. But there's no come hither in the twist, just melancholy gloom.

Brooks and her circle of wealthy women lead gloomy lives on canvas, but Mecklenburg says on the streets, it was different.

"They were having a good time in Paris in the teens and the '20s," she says. "On the Bois de Boulogne, taking carriage rides, on horses, going to parties, there was a really active, high-energy, friendly, fun relationship among all these women."

At the Romaine Brooks show at the American Art Museum, you might wish some of that fun showed up on the canvases — but what is there is a brave sense of modernity and freedom.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn from gender in sports to gender in art. The Smithsonian is showing works of a 20th-century female artist who toyed with gender roles. She wore manly clothes and painted androgynous women. An American who lived in Paris, she left most of her work to the American Art Museum. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg introduces Romaine Brooks.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Brooks introduces herself in a 1923 self-portrait - narrowly cut, long, black riding jacket, white blouse, short-cropped hair, eyes shadowed by a black, high hat, but you can still see puffy circles. There is the tiniest smudge of maybe pink on her lips. Otherwise, the whole thing is black and various shades of gray. The women she paints share that severe palette and a certain mood.

JOE LUCCHESI: Loneliness, strength, vulnerability...

STAMBERG: Joe Lucchesi of St. Mary's College of Maryland is consulting curator of the Romaine Brooks show.

LUCCHESI: A kind of careworn but very strong presence all combined in one.

STAMBERG: In their man-tailored jackets, their aesthetic sensibilities, their intense love relationships, Brooks' women moved in the artistic circles of 1920s Paris.

LUCCHESI: There were poets. There were novelists, socialites, photographers.

STAMBERG: Painters - very fashionable and rich. The money helped insulate them from social constraints of their day. The money made them free. In Romaine Brooks' case, free to paint what she wanted to paint - the unconventional, androgynous women, the limited, gloomy palette and to ignore what her big guy contemporaries were doing, Picasso and Matisse, whose vivid and revolutionary canvases filled the homes of Gertrude Stein and family.

LUCCHESI: She really painted as though Picasso and Matisse didn't exist.

STAMBERG: Critics liked her, but she didn't sell much - didn't have to. She had inherited a fortune after a miserable childhood. Her unpublished memoir is called "No Pleasant Memories." And so Brooks could mix her whites and blacks into shades of grays and paint "White Azaleas," her 1910 take on Manet's famous "Olympia" - nude, reclining on couch near a huge arrangement of flowers, just staring into space.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: It's wistful in some ways.

STAMBERG: This is Smithsonian curator Virginia Mecklenburg.

MECKLENBURG: Wistful, maybe wishful also. But there is an erotic undertone to Brooks' nudes. There is some sort of a longing.

STAMBERG: For what?

MECKLENBURG: For sexual encounter. If not sexual encounter, for emotional intimacy, I think, is probably a better way to put it.

STAMBERG: Her bare body twists in our direction. She's making herself very available. But there's no come hither in the twist, just melancholy gloom. Romaine Brooks and her circle of wealthy women lead gloomy lives on canvas. But Virginia Mecklenburg says, on the streets, it was different.

MECKLENBURG: They were having a good time in Paris in the teens and the '20s. They were having a good time on the Bois de Boulogne, taking carriage rides, on horses, going to parties. There was a really active, high-energy, friendly, fun relationship among all of these women.

STAMBERG: At the American Art Museum's Romaine Brooks' show, up until October 2, you sort of wish some of that fun showed up on the canvases. But what is there is a brave sense of modernity and freedom. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.