Painter Romaine Brooks Challenged Conventions In Shades Of Gray

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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.

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 She'd inherited a fortune after a miserable childhood (her unpublished memoir is called No Pleasant Memories).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.

"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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