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Brooks, Romaine (1874-1970)  
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American artist Romaine Brooks created a body of work unique to the history of modern art. Her life-sized female nudes and portraits of cross-dressed women made her lesbian identity and desire visible to the world.

The third and youngest child of Major Henry Goddard and Ella Mary Waterman, Beatrice Romaine Goddard was born on May 1, 1874 while her mother was traveling in Rome. She was the newest addition to a wealthy but severely dysfunctional family from Philadelphia. The child's father abandoned the family shortly after her birth.

The artist's mother was a cruel narcissist and an erratic parent who left her infant daughter with a family laundress in the United States while she traveled throughout Europe with her other children. The oldest child, St. Mar, suffered from a debilitating mental illness that caused him to exhibit disruptive and violent behavior. Very little is known about Brooks's sister, Mary Aimée (Maya), the middle child.

Brooks was finally allowed to join her mother, brother, and sister in Europe when she was twelve years old. She was, however, educated in private girls' schools while her mother continued her travels. Such an early life experience would lead any child to feel that she was a mere inconvenience.

Brooks's adolescent years consisted of attempts to appease both the needs of her ill brother and her emotionally unstable mother. She was, however, finally able to convince Ella to allow her to study voice near Paris from 1896 to 1898. Although she was given only a tiny allowance and suffered financial hardships, she was highly motivated and dedicated to the voice lessons. But she ultimately decided that her true calling was to the visual arts.

Brooks traveled to Rome in 1898 and began to take free painting classes at the La Scuola Nazionale during the day while also studying at Circolo Artistico at night. In 1899, she vacationed in Capri, where she met a cadre of expatriate American and English artists and writers, many of whom were involved in same-sex relationships.

Brooks later described that first trip to Capri as the happiest time of her life. During the following year, Brooks continued to study painting at Académie Colarossi in Paris.

Soon after the turn of the century, Brooks's fortune improved. St. Mar died in 1901 and her mother died of diabetes the following year. Much to her surprise, the artist had inherited, at the age of twenty-eight, the entire family fortune. Her new financial independence allowed her artistic freedom and provided entrée to the salons and homes of the European social and intellectual elite.

The artist moved to London in 1902 and agreed to a marriage of convenience with John Ellingham Brooks, an impoverished, but socially prominent, gay pianist. They separated after three months, and Brooks continued to support him the rest of his life. She further reinvented her identity by dropping the feminine name Beatrice and keeping her married surname. She was now known by the name of Romaine Brooks.

Having gained social status and artistic respectability through her marriage, Brooks rented a studio in Chelsea across Tite Street from the studio in which James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) had worked. Whistler's subdued palette would soon influence Brooks's work.

By 1905, when she was thirty-one, Brooks had resettled in Paris, acquired a large studio on the Left Bank, and briefly studied art with Gustave Courtois.

During 1910 Brooks began to paint the works for which she became renowned--life-sized nudes and portraits of Parisian illuminati. Her first female nude was The Red Jacket, painted in that same year, soon followed by an erotic odalisque entitled White Azaleas.

Brooks's first one-woman exhibition was shown from May 2 to May 18, 1910 at the prestigious Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris. It was a breakthrough exhibition in which Brooks exhibited thirteen portraits and nudes that made her lesbian identity public.

She received critical acclaim from Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921), the aristocratic dandy on whom Proust based the character of the homosexual Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past. He was to serve as the artist's principal mentor. Brooks sent the entire exhibition plus additional works to the Goupil Gallery in London the following year.

In 1911 Brooks not only created numerous artistic works, but she also met Ida Rubenstein (1885-1960), a Russian ballerina who performed with the Ballets Russes. The dancer quickly became Brooks's lover and the subject of her most important early portraits and nudes such as The Crossing (1911).

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A self portrait by Romaine Brooks.
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