February is the joyous month to celebrate LGBT+ history across the UK. This annual-month long celebration aims to educate and amplify the historic milestones from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Visual artists from our Biography Collection
This year we are excited to shine the light on LGBT+ visual artists from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, which contains many fascinating books exploring the lives of LGBT+ artists, some household names like David Hockney, Gwen John, Francis Bacon and Maggie Hambling, and others far less well known. For this blog post our colleague, Claudia, will be focusing on two very different 20th century artists, from very different backgrounds, whose sexuality and the obstacles society put in their way informed their lives and art.
Romaine Brooks was an American heiress who moved to Paris in the 1890s, while still in her teens, to develop her career as a painter. Having the financial means to avoid the poor areas frequented by struggling garret-dwelling artists, she set up home in the fashionable 16th arondissement, and painted portraits of aristocrats – some of whom, including the Princesse de Polignac, became her lovers.
Brooks had previously lived in England, and a spell in St Ives saw her refining her palette from the bright, strong tones of her earlier work, to the muted greys which became her trademark. Brooks favoured masculine attire, cutting a glamorous and elegant figure in austerely tailored coats, wing collars, top hats and a short haircut (long before the shocking “Eton crop” became fashionable for “flappers” in the 1920s). Many of her portraits of women show their subjects in similar outfits, providing a rich record of women subverting the rigidly gendered clothing of the time and signalling their sexual preferences.
Brooks had a 50 year relationship with the writer Natalie Barney, whose salon in the rue Jacob spanned six decades. Brooks was one of a circle of women who were determined to live as their true selves in the face of prejudice, and created great artistic records of the lives of their peers.
Beauford Delaney also made the journey from America to Paris, but sixty years after Brooks did, and in middle age. By this time, he was an established painter, having made his name with his haunting modernist depictions of the homeless and disenfranchised in Depression era New York City.
A native of Tennessee, whose mother had been born enslaved, Delaney began painting at an early age (as did his brother Joseph, who also became a professional artist). His period in New York City coincided with The Harlem Renaissance, a huge flowering of African American art, music and literature, and he was active in radical politics. James Baldwin wrote movingly of Delaney as his “spiritual father”, “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.
After Delaney’s death, Baldwin wrote: “He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”
Implicit in these words is Baldwin’s recognition of Delaney’s struggle as a fellow black gay man – although a prominent member of gay Bohemian circles which were carving a place in the arts and society, Delaney struggled with the shadow cast by the homophobia of the time and of the church teaching of his youth. His mental health deteriorated, partly as a result of the pressures of negotiating his sexuality in a hostile society. His work is inflected with the vision of the raw and tender vision of the outsider, the artist seeking to elevate the humane truths of existence above the violence and cruelty of exclusion.