Romaine Brooks

born Rome, Italy 1874-died Nice, France 1970
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Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Instituion.
Also known as
  • Beatrice Romaine Brooks
  • Romaine Goddard
Rome, Italy
Nice, France
Active in
  • Paris, France

Romaine Brooks, the daughter of a wealthy, unbalanced woman estranged from her husband before Romaine's birth, had a miserable and unstable childhood. An insane older brother received mother's love and attention, leaving Romaine scarred from lack of affection and acceptance. Inheritance of the huge family fortune in 1902 granted her independence, but she remained enslaved by memories of her mother's cruelty. She studied in Rome, meeting an avant-garde group of artists, writers, and intellectuals with whom she associated in Capri, Paris, and the French Riviera.

Her Self Portrait depicts a steely figure attired in a riding habit, carrying herself confidently and with elegance. She stares relentlessly at us from beneath the brim of her hat, with eyes that could be either frightened or condemning. Her mouth, corners upturned, either smiles or sneers. The ruins behind her, as ambiguous as her expression, add to the air of uncertainty about where she is and what she is thinking.

Brooks remained aloof from all artistic trends, painting, in her palette of black, white, and grays, haunting portraits of the blessed and the troubled, of socialites and intellectuals. She moved in brilliant circles and, while resisting companionship, was the object of violent passions. When she painted her own portrait, she revealed her intensely contradictory nature: extreme confidence coupled with fear of vulnerability. Her story and her work reveal much about bohemian life in the early twentieth century.

Elizabeth Chew Women Artists (brochure, Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Luce Artist Biography

Romaine Brooks was born in Rome to wealthy American parents. Her father abandoned the family soon after Romaine's birth, however, and her mother's emotional instability created an unhappy homelife. Brooks spent much of her childhood at different boarding schools around Europe, a miserable experience that she later recalled in an unpublished memoir titled "No Pleasant Memories."  When she was twenty-two, she returned to Rome to study at the Scuola Nazionale, where she was the only woman in her class. She had a studio on the island of Capri, and later established one in London, where she befriended artists and writers such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. By 1905, she had made a name for herself in Paris as a painter of women, some of whom were her lovers. Her most visible and lasting relationship was with the American poet Natalie Barney, who also lived in Paris.


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Graphic Masters I: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
November 21, 2008May 24, 2009
Graphic Masters I: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the first in a series of special installations that celebrate the extraordinary variety and accomplishment of American artists' works on paper.
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Grand Salon Installation-Paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
June 5, 2009November 11, 2013
This installation in the Renwick Gallery's Grand Salon displays seventy paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection, including landscapes, portraits, and allegorical works by fifty-one American artists from the 1840s to the 1930s.
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The Art of Romaine Brooks
June 17, 2016October 2, 2016
Romaine Brooks (1874–1970) lived most of her life in Paris where she was a leading figure of an artistic counterculture of upper-class Europeans and American expatriates, many of whom were creative, bohemian, and homosexual.

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An illustration of a person wearing a black coat and top hat.
Celebrating the renowned artist with a comic about her life and work
Head of Romaine Brooks wearing a hat, coat, and white shirt open at the collar.
Romaine Brooks declaring who she is in her 1923 work, Self-Portrait, is ultimately a transgressive act for a LGBTQ+ person.
A picture of a man with a green shirt and tie on standing inside a room.
Geoffrey Cohrs
Docent Coordinator
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Joe Lucchesi, the consulting curator for SAAM's exhibition, The Art of Romaine Brooks, is Associate Professor of Art History and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Coordinator at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Joe gives us a look at the humor and wit of Romaine Brooks. He will be leading a tour of the show on Thursday, September 29 at 6 p.m. The Art of Romaine Brooks is on view until October 2, 2016.
SAAM Staff
Blog Editor
Blog Image 152 - Framing The Art of Romaine Brooks
Romaine Brooks was something of an interior decorator as well as an artist. She took a lively interest in the frame designs and finishes for her artworks. Several of the paintings in the exhibition The Art of Romaine Brooks are in frames that she personally designed or that were prepared under her direction.
SAAM Staff
Blog Editor