Fictional Primary Source – Ida Rubinstein: Sapphic Icon or Fetish?

10 Feb. 1912

From the desk of Romaine Brooks


My dear Natalie1,

Allow me to describe the events of a certain performance I attended last spring. The premiere of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, a collaborative work of D’Annunzio, Debussy, Fokine, Bakst, and Rubinstein, was as long in duration as complex in moral and aesthetic implications.  The five-hour production, a drama in five acts, narrates the story of a young Lebanese officer named Sebastien.  He refuses to obey the Emperor’s orders to renounce his new-found faith, and consequently is bound to a laurel tree and shot with arrows, becoming a Christian martyr2.

The martyred Sebastien is performed by our own Ida Rubinstein.  Yes, a female Russian Jew plays the part of a male Christian saint who shows her legs3 – and what lovely legs they are indeed! As D’Annunzio exclaimed after seeing her in Schéhérezade last year, “Here are the legs of Saint-Sébastien for which I have been searching in vain all these years!”4 I must agree; her thin, lithe figure is the living incarnation of her own artistic ideal.5  She truly is forging her own path into the public eye.  However, I must caution that she may also be the unfortunate first victim of the necessary movement toward women’s liberation and power.

In Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, D’Annunzio’s text is narration to the harmonies of Debussy.  The intellectuals are still in great debate over whether to be impressed or outraged; depending with whom you speak, the music is either “hard and cruel” or “very seductive” and “more sumptuous … full …. and sonorous, with choruses in a Palestrinian style”6.  The set design of Bakst is a colorful feast for the eyes to behold; the costumes, scenery, and lighting all help intensify the emotional states of otherwise quite static characters.7

Ida Rubinstein once said that “I was born with the ambition to lend my body, my movements, my voice, and the most intimate of my being to the characters of theatre, to the imagination, to the ideal; there is my real kingdom, my homeland.”8  Ida views her performances as synthesizing the three facets of art – music, dance, poetry – into a religious experience.  Drawing from the Ancient Greek drama and Nietzschean concept of humanity achieving divinity through art, Ida attempts to unite text and dance into a single work.  The critics have often marveled at her ability to stand completely still and morph into a strikingly real portrayal of the artwork she has chosen.9

Saint Sebastien gradually became a favorite saint among homosexuals after artists smoothed out his features each time they recreated his image.10  The sexual ambiguity of the Saint is only increased in Rubinstein’s portrayal of him; she is a masculine female acting as an effeminate man, pursued by a homosexual emperor …. Naturally, the Catholic Church immediately forbade its followers from attending any future performances of Le Martyre.

Ida represents a fascinating duality of Russian Jew playing Christian saint; natural female displaying androgynous11 features.  She suggests a new model of female beauty with her thin, androgynous body in such contrast with the voluptuous female ideal of the last century12.  With her performance of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, she has abruptly transformed into the modern ideal of a self-affirmed woman embodying androgynous neoclassical aesthetics.13  Her ambiguous figure manifests both male and female attributes, and succeeds in realizing the neoclassical ideal of beauty.  However, this metamorphosis is not without consequence, as she is the unfortunate victim of societal fetishization of the ‘liberated’ woman.

The Sapphist movement, of which I am an active member, embraces Ida as a successful example of la femme moderne14.  Advocates of this movement see in her androgynous features a figure which embodies all of their aesthetic and social ideals.  I must express some caution, though, for garnering pride at the expense of self-identity.  Ida has unwillingly become a fetish of the Parisian audience; she provides a synthesis of heterogeneous elements into a novel identity that incites desire.15  The public is excited by the transgressive sexuality, and fails to see beyond their shallow attraction to her body to notice instead the ancient ideal of beauty she attempts (and succeeds) to represent.  Ida has become a modern-day fetish with a mysterious aura that magically attracts consumers.16

How can Ida maintain her aesthetic ideal while regaining control of her freedom as a woman?  Perhaps it is impossible to fully realize the concept of neoclassical beauty in this time of emerging fascination with the androgyne; Ida’s performance represents an achievement of the neoclassical image while sacrificing personal freedom.

Affectionately Yours,

Romaine Brooks


Levitz, Tamara. Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 416.

2 Cossart, Michael. Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960): A Theatrical Life. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1987. 35.

Davis, Peter. “Saintly Strains.” New York Magazine, April 21, 1997

Fleischer, Mary. Embodied Texts: Symbolist Playwright-Dancer Collaborations. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 42.

Frank, Priscilla. “Meet Romaine Brooks, A 20th Century Artist Who Paved The Way for The 21st Century Lesbian.” Huffington Post, May 19, 2015.

Aldrich, Richard. “Schindler to Give Excerpts from Debussy’s Music to D’Annunzio’s Miracle Play.” New York Times, February 11, 1912.

Fleischer 62.

8 Je suis née avec l’ambition de prêter mon corps, mes mouvements, ma voix et le plus intime de mon être à des personnages de théâtre, à l’imaginaire, à l’idéal ; voilà mon vrai royaume, ma patrie.” Gallota, Jean-Claude. “Ida Rubinstein, Intense Insoumise.” Le Monde Des Livres, February 16, 2012.

9 Levitz 402.

10 Fleischer 69.

11 “With her great height, small breasts, slim hips and long legs, Rubinstein presented a startling visual image … Advocates of the femme nouvelle, that symbol of bourgeois womanhood … saw in her androgynous features a visual representation of the qualities they were trying to usurp” Caddy, Davinia. “Variations on the Dance of the Seven Veils.” Cambridge Opera Journal OPR, 2005. 47.

12 Holmes, Diana. A “Belle Epoque”?: Women in French Society and Culture, 1890-1914. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. 72.

13 Levitz 424.

14 Caddy, Davinia 47.

15 Levitz 408.

16 Levitz 430.