Portraits by a Lady

Article excerpt

I new exhibition brings Jazz Age painter Romaine Brooks out of the art closet

When Joe Lucchesi first glimpsed a 1923 self-portrait by the painter Romaine Brooks, he was astonished. The handsome, androgynous woman dressed in a black coat and top hat, staring gravely back at him from a brilliant gray background, hinted at a mysterious and darkly alluring world he dreamed of exploring. Lucchesi's fascination with Brooks and her art resulted first in an unpublished doctoral dissertation; now, he is curator of "Amazons in the Drawing Room," the fullest exhibition of her work to date, at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts, through September 24.

"The painting was an entree into the gay and lesbian subculture in Europe, which is one of the keys to understanding modern gay life," says the openly gay Lucchesi, an assistant professor of art history at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It was one of the first times that gay people were creating their own aesthetic values and their own way of being, their own community and identity."

Indeed, Brooks must be one of the least heralded lesbian pioneers of the 20th century. Brooks (1874--1970) was born in Rome to a wealthy expatriate American mother. As a young woman she moved to the Italian island of Capri, which had become a haven for gay and lesbian writers and painters escaping the antigay climate created by Oscar Wilde's imprisonment in Britain on sodomy charges in 1895. Soon she became a central part of lively cafe society in Paris, befriending, among others, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean Cocteau, whom she painted in 1912.

The show's centerpieces are her four self-portraits, which range from the androgynous 1923 painting to At the Edge of the Sea, in which a serenely self-confident Brooks looks longingly out from a windswept seashore. The rest of the show is devoted to her portraits of various female lovers, including the Russian ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein. Her devotion to Rubinstein is evident in a floor-to-ceiling portrait, Spring (1912), in which the bare-chested dancer is draped in a black cape and a flowing necklace of flowers on a lush green field. …