Artistic Enigma: Romaine Brooks ‘Self Portrait’ (1923)

I have found nothing like Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait (1923) in all of art history.

Ashy. Spooky. Skeletal. Stylish. Funerary. Chic. Haunting. Bewitching.

To see this painting once is to remember it forever.

What is it she’s trying to say to us through this image or herself?

I was brought again to Brooks’ Self-Portrait through its inclusion in the exhibition “Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939” at the National Portrait Gallery. Brooks (1874-1970) was one of the “brilliant exiles,” generations of American women who left the States in pursuit of a more authentic life in the French capital than they could live at home.

The exhibition, which visits the Speed Art Museum in Louisville (March 29, 2025, to June 22, 2025) and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens (July 19, 2025, to November 2, 2025) after closing in Washington, highlights the myriad ways these women contributed to the city’s vibrant modernist milieu.

“I think it’s the mystery of it,” exhibition curator Robyn Asleson, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, told me about the painting’s appeal. “I’ve read several different interpretations of what is actually going on in that portrait. We know it’s more than just her likeness. She’s trying to tell us something about her whole self.”

Asleson shared with me her theory about the artwork’s meaning.

“(Brooks) had a very tragic backstory. She was raised in an extremely wealthy family, but her parents were abusive, and neglectful. It was so horrible that she decided she’d rather be disowned, disinherited, and try to make a career as an artist with no help from her family than put up with what she’d been experiencing,” Asleson explains. “She went to Italy and had a horrible time with dire poverty. Very vulnerable, a lone woman without protectors and it’s Italy – that was unheard of, a single woman without family, or friends to help her. She was really preyed upon.”

During this trial, Brooks found out she had not been disinherited and was, in fact, left a huge fortune by her mother upon her death.

“She’s this broken person, had all the money to do whatever she wanted to do, and was left thinking, ‘what do I want to do? Who am I,’” Asleson contends. “She spent the next several years reconstructing her sense of self.”

We see the results in Romaine Brooks Self-Portrait from 1923.

“She had gone through several permutations by the time she made that self-portrait. At that point, she had come up with this style – at one point she’d been shopping in the boys’ department in London department stores, and wearing male clothing. Then she went on to create this hybrid, masculinized feminine style, suddenly she’s wearing red lipstick,” Asleson continues. “Her hat has feathers in it, but it’s a very kind of masculine style of suit. She’s kind of posing as a dandy with a thumb stuck into her coat jacket.”

Brooks was not quite 50 years old when she painted this, but still only halfway through what would be an incredibly long life.

“The hat is shading her eyes. She’s looking at us very intently, but we can’t really gain purchase on her gaze. We can’t really see her and she’s standing behind that burned out city and I just keep thinking that city might represent her past,” Asleson details. “Her family’s gone, that’s all dead and gone and over, and she has survived, and I think of her like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of this ruined, dead past. Very self-protective, very canny. Shielding her eyes, buttoned up, but a survivor; I think it’s meant to be enigmatic, and we’re meant to puzzle over it. All of her portraits are strange, and I can’t stop looking at them and thinking about what they might mean.”

Neither can I.

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