Love Story

The Nude Love of Ida Rubinstein and Romaine Brooks

Magda Michalska 11 February 2021 min Read

Being a bisexual woman at the beginning of the 20th century was difficult. They were looked down on, they were scorned and discussed behind their backs. But they kept on going, working, and loving. Here comes a story of a difficult, troubled, and nude love between two women artists: Romaine Brooks, a painter, and Ida Rubinstein, a dancer.

Ida Rubinstein, Cleopatre, 1909
Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatre, 1909, photographer unknown. TheatreX.

Ida was born into one of the richest families in Russia, trading with sugar and dealing with banking, Ida had a financially secured future. She was orphaned at an early age but her relatives from St Petersburg ensured she received a solid education and maximum exposure to the cultural activities of the city. Already in childhood, she exhibited a flair for the theatrical, always going by the name “Ida” instead of her given name Lydia. As she began traveling and meeting socialites, her behavior changed and her ideas became too liberated and inappropriate for her status. Based on her scandalously modern dance technique and her role in 1908 for a private performance of Oscar Wilde‘s Salomé, in which she stripped nude for the Dance of the Seven Veils, it was decided to have her confined to a mental institution.

Valentin Serov , Portrait of Ida Rubenstein as Salome, 1910, Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Valentin Serov, Portrait of Ida Rubenstein as Salome, 1910, State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia.

However, Ida escaped the psychiatric hospital and ran off to Paris, where she began working with the Ballets Russes, starring in their shows, Cléopatre, in 1909 and Sheherazade, in 1910. She fuelled the company with her immeasurable beauty and grace, inspiring many artists and attracting large audiences to the shows. Nevertheless, Ida needed more freedom and in 1911 she left and founded her own company instead.

 Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein,1917, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein, 1917, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA.

Yet the company had to wait, as WWI broke out and Ida, like many other artists, decided to volunteer for the war effort. In her specially tailored nurse’s uniform (designed by her life-long friend Leon Bakst and described by Jean Cocteau “like the pungent perfume of some exotic essence — ethereal, otherworldly, divinely unattainable…”), she attended to wounded soldiers and traveled across France reciting poetry from Count de Montesquiou’s Offrandes blessées. In the painting below Romaine Brooks depicts Ida as a heroic nurse; in the background, we see the city of Ypres burning.

ida rubinstein and romaine brooks: Romaine Brooks, La France Croisée, 1914
Romaine Brooks, La France Croisée, 1914, private collection. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

After the war, Ida returned to her company which was officially established in 1928 and financed with her part of a family inheritance. It presented ballets by some of the greatest artists of the time: choreographies by Nijinska, Massine, Fokine, and Jooss; original scores by Ravel (Boléro), Stravinsky (L’Oiseau de Feu), Sauguet, Honegger… The company disbanded in 1935. Her last performance was as an actress in 1939, in Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher. 

Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein, 1912, Smithsonian American Art,
Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein, 1912, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA.

Romaine Brooks met Ida in 1911 after her first performance as the title character in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (for which Rubinstein was excommunicated by the Parisian archbishop because she starred as St Sebastian, a Catholic saint, while she was a Jewish woman). As D’Annunzio had an obsessive but unrequited attraction to Rubinstein, whereas Rubinstein was deeply in love with Brooks, a romantic triangle unfolded. Rubinstein was so committed to Brooks that she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they could live together undisturbed, yet Romaine was not interested in it at all.

Romaine Brooks, Le Trajet, ca. 1911, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, love of ida rubinstein and romain brooks
Romaine Brooks, Le Trajet, ca. 1911, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA.

Rubinstein was Brooks’ favorite model, her “fragile and androgynous beauty” was ideal for Brooks’ paintings. She painted a series of allegorical nudes that were extremely controversial at the time, especially because they were produced by a female artist. In The Crossing, for example, (also exhibited as The Dead Woman), Ida is stretched out on a white bed or bier against a black void variously interpreted as death or resting in spent sexual satisfaction on Brooks’ symbolic wing…

Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (The Weeping Venus) with Ida Rubinstein as the model, Musées de la Ville de Poitiers, France, love of ida rubinstein and romaine brooks
Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (The Weeping Venus), 1917, Musées de la Ville de Poitiers, Poitiers, France.

The couple split around 1914. Was it because of another woman? Some say that Romaine had already met her future lover – Natalie Clifford Barney, an American-born writer – in 1914, others say in 1916. Anyway, the relationship with Natalie was the longest and most important for Brooks. It was, however, yet another triangle, as they shared their lives with Lily de Gramont. Nonetheless, Brooks couldn’t forget Ida, and she painted her one last time in The Weeping Venus (1916–17). She said she tried to repaint Venus’ facial features many times, but Rubinstein’s face kept haunting her: “It fixes itself in the mind.”


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