Romaine Brooks was born in Rome in 1874 and lived for almost a century until her death in Paris in 1970. Her work mesmerizes with its muted palette of black, white, and various shades of gray. Sometimes, there’s a small moment of red or brown. Her childhood was defined by unhappiness and abuse that she detailed in her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories.
Brooks managed to transcend her early years to become a leading figure of an artistic counterculture of upper-class Europeans and American expatriates. Many in Brooks’s social circle were creative, bohemian, wealthy, and queer. She created an androgynous look for herself, helping to disrupt conventional ideas of how women should act and dress.
You can’t help but look at her self-portrait from 1923 and wonder: Who is this person? What is she thinking? She looks out from the brim of her black top hat and stares directly at you. This painting, a highlight of SAAM’s collection, became the inspiration for SAAM’s 2021 comic, “Do You Think I’m Hiding?” illustrated by Abigail Rajunov, a student at the Ringling College of Art and Design.
There’s so much to admire in Abigail’s heartfelt work, beginning with the endearing cover featuring the artist’s self-portrait as well as a puzzled young visitor, fascinated by the painting. There are so many questions about not just who the sitter is, but what is she trying to say as well. The story then unfolds: from Brooks’s difficult early childhood years as well as a scene of her being the only woman in art school, through happiness, success, and, finally, embracing her queer identity in a circle of women who prized gender fluidity. Abigail worked in a muted palette to give the comic another layer of resonance and pay homage to how Brooks captured her world.
The comic ends full circle with the child we saw at the beginning, still mesmerized by the painting. “Do you think she’s hiding,” the comic asks, “or has she become the person she needed to be all along?”
But wait, there’s more. Though the story concludes, the comic ends with an image of Romaine Brooks in her “bloomers” riding a bicycle in Paris. Don’t miss it!
This comic is part of a series Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists that illuminates the stories of ten women artists in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Inspired by graphic novels, these short takes on artists’ lives were each drawn by a woman student-illustrator from the Ringling College of Art and Design.
We invite you to read the comic and share with your friends and young people in your life, as well as a personal reflection on Romaine Brooks’s Self-Portrait from Geoffrey Cohrs, SAAM’s docent coordinator.