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The Nude Love of Ida Rubinstein and Romaine Brooks

20th century

The Nude Love of Ida Rubinstein and Romaine Brooks

Being a bisexual woman at the beginning of the 20th century was difficult. They were looked down at, 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 source: https://theredlist.com, love of ida rubinstein and romaine brooks

Ida Rubinstein, Cleopatre, 1909 source: https://theredlist.com

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 the 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 travelling and meeting socialites, her behaviour 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, ida rubinstein and romaine brooks love

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

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, love of ida and romaine brooks

Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein,1917, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Yet the company had to wait, as the WW1 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 on the background of the burning city of Ypres.

Romaine Brooks, La France Croisée, 1914, love of ida and romaine brooks

Romaine Brooks, La France Croisée, 1914

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, love of ida rubinstein and romaine brooks

Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein, 1912, Smithsonian American Art

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, Gift of the artist

Rubinstein was Brooks favourite model, her “fragile and androgynous beauty” was ideal for Brook’s paintings. She painted a series of allegorical nudes which were extremely controversial at their 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) with Ida Rubinstein as the model, 1917, Musées de la Ville de Poitiers, France

The couple split around 1914. Was it because of another woman? Some say that Romaine met her future lover, Natalie Clifford Barney, an American-born writer, already in 1914, others that in 1916. Anyway, the relationship with Natalie was the longest and most important for Brooks. It was, however, a yet another triangle, as they shared their lives with Lily de Gramont. However, 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’s facial features many times, but Rubinstein’s face kept haunting her: “It fixes itself in the mind.”

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Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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