"Those who exist in the spirit are more easily with us than those obscured by the flesh.
"For surely to haunt is more than to possess."
Natalie Clifford Barney
THE BARNEY women are all dead now, all gone. They are only a light footstep on the stairs and a peacock feather floating in the salon. But the beautiful and brave Barneys left behind them many exotic stages and props of their unlikely lives.
Among them are Studio House on Sheridan Circle, 600 paintings by Alice Pike Barney and her friends, 1,500 decorative objects, books of epigrams by daughter Natalie Barney, clippings about daughter Laura Barney, scrapbook after scrapbook and photographs of all three - all of it, and $500,000 or so, left to the National Collection of Fine Arts. And Barney Neighborhood House and the Sylvan Theater both were established by Alice Pike Barney.
Most of all the Barney women left behind them a great number of tales: The more outrageous are true, the more staid are myths. As Natalie put it: "I have perhaps gotten more out of life than it possesses."
Alice Pike Barney was one of the more remarkable of those fantastic and free women who splashed across the private and public stages, giving the push to the turn of the century. She was beautiful, wealthy, talented and perhaps, above all, incredibly energetic. She painted hundreds of better-than-passable paintings. She wrote at least 50 plays and an unpublished biography. And she was the designer of at least a half-dozen houses and studios. She might be said, like the dancers Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan, to have been liberated but unlicensed.
As a young woman she was engaged to Henry Morton Stanley, who named his boat "Lady ALice" on his second trip to Africa (after finding Dr. Livingston). As a matron, Barney was the salon keeper par excellence. She was encouraged in her artistic endeavorss by Oscar Wilde and James McNeil Whistler, if not by her husband, Albert Barney, for whom she jilted Stanley while he was still in Africa (some say because she was pregnant). Daughter Natalie was known in Paris as "Empress of the Lesbians." Laura was a leader in women's rights both win the League of nations and the United Nations.
The Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts currently is exhibiting merely a liquer glass taste of its great Barney holdings in a show "Alice Pike Barney and Her Friends," through May 21. It includes 18 charming, rather pre-Raphaelite paintings by Alice Pike Barney; 13 artistic works by her friends; a few photographs of their habitats; and seven pieces of decorative arts - two necklaces, a ring, a pair of candlesticks by Tiffany Studios of New York, a candlestick by Louis Chalon of Paris, a pair of armchairs designed by Barney and pendant designed by the painter Romaine Brooks for Laura Barney.
Donal McClelland and Jean Lewton are the curators of the exhibition.
Perhaps more important, Joshua Taylor, director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, is overseeing the restoration of Barney Studio House to its original turn-of-the-century ornateness - the rich clutter of culture which centered around the Barneys. The restoration will be based on the photographs in Alice Pike Barney's scrapbooks. You can see in the photos how she remodeled the reception room to keep up with the fads: The highly carved columns are later encased or replaced with a simpler arts and crafts movement supports.
The restoration will include reupholstering the banquettes, tightening the legs of the funny furniture, a bit of paint here, some brass polish there, fresh paint, in the yellowry/greenery of the period, and a new roof. The worse insults to the house - fluorescent lights and the wall-to-wall carpet, left over from its use as offices have already been removed. The handmade ceramic tile floors will be revealed and the missing Tiffany lighting fixtures copied where necessary.
The house will be used as Barney intended: for small, intimate lectures, conferences and, perhaps, even small musicales. The upper two floors are an apartment, used for National Collection visiting scholars. These are being restored to Barney's taste. And, when it's all finished, the Barney pictures will be rehung. Taylor says he hopes the work will be finished in the spring, but he isn't sure which spring.
Alice Pike Barney started to build the house in 1902 - significantly after her husband, Albert, a railroad-car heir, died. She and her daughters had been living primarily in Paris, coming home principally to serve as her husband's hostesses on special occasions, and to help him design houses in Bar Harbor and Washington.
His death gave her the freedom she wanted to import her Parisian experiences to Washington. She aimed, at all costs (and she could afford them), to establish a salon, to make Washington a center of culture, a neo-Paris of wordly pleasures, according to the essay in the show's checklist by McClelland, who is also hard at work on a book about the Barney ladies. In a foreword, Taylor puts Barney in her place:
"There came a time toward the end of the last century in which the way of art became a desirable model for a way of life. Deliberately freeing himself from illusions of urban progress and the machine-made clutter of modern life, the artist with high esthetic learnings surrounded himself with objects to dream about, evoking a world that was sensuously present and intellectually remote . . .
"Studio House was built less as a place for creating works of art than as a place of artistic enjoyment, as a place in which one might live artistically . . . With missionary zeal and with slight regard for social conventions, she carried her belief in the rewards of art to as broad a community as she could reach through theater, music and exhibitions, with never a doubt that goodness and beauty were other than inseparable . . ."
Studio House was built by Barney as a playhouse. She designed it, with assistance from Washington architect Waddy Wood, not for living, but for playing. The facade, according to McClelland, was suggested by Whistler's "White House" in London, which she once rented, though Studio House is much more romantic and free-form. Barney knew Whistler in London, and painted quite a good portrait of him, as well as one of George Bernard Shaw.
Nobody remembers it now, but Whistler was, in his time, almost as well known for his interior design as for his paintings. He painted all his walls white for one interior used all black furniture. His peacock room at the Freer Gallery here may well be his masterpiece, all dark green with gold peacocks.
Studio House is perhaps best described as a house costumed for a masquerade. All the major rooms seem to have balconies, stages, alcoves, carved columns, langurous banquettes, handmade tile floors, huge-hewn beamed ceilings, peep holes, massive fireplaces and a great many things hard to name. All of these sturctural matters were dressed with tapestrie, wallpaper, fabric wall coverings, wall murals, velvet cornices, neo-medieval furniture, gilded mottoesd, gilded mirrors, castle-sized chandeliers, brocade hangings, piles of pillows, a zoo of animal skins and museum of decorative objects - and, of course, on every vacant surface (and some that weren't) paintings by Barney and her friends.
Barney herself was always costumed by Vionnet, the great couturier of the period, usually in dripping draperies, appropriate to an art noveau artiste.
Studio House is a perfect fin de siecle setting, exhibiting the excesses of Victorian taste, as well as the imagination of an amalgamation of the arts and crafts movement, the pre-Raphaelites and art nouveau. In short, it is hilarious. Guests must have had a wonderful time. Barney entertained everybody worth inviting, including Presidents William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt and dancer Ruth St. Dennis and Anna Pavlova.
George Wickes' book "The Amazon of Letters, The Life of Loves and Natalie Barney," quotes a circa-1898 newspaper gossip columnist as saying that Barney had "at last o'erleaped herself" and was on the "verge of social ostracism."
"Her much advetised theatricals of last week - given to call attention to young Miss (Natalie) Barney - caused a great stir in Washington. Miss Barney's performance in Sardou's risky play, 'L'Entrangere,' has caused many of the more careful and reserved matrons to draw back from Mrs. Barney and her set. At the kettledrum, early in the winter, Miss Barney recited a monologue about the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene which the Catholics considered blasphemous, and the Barneys are likely to find themselves taboo among the more exclusive women.=
Earlier, a newspaper writer had said more than she knew, "No young woman of the gay set at the capital is more admired than Miss Natalie Barney . . ."
Barney's fondness for theatricals and her admiration of male beauty led her to an unfortunate marriage in later life, to a much, much younger man, Paul Swann, a dancer who eloped with another man and sued her for divorce on the grounds of desertion according to McClelland. (She had taken the precaution of giving most of ther money to her daughters upon her marriage.) It is said she anounced the divorce by sending her acquaintancessse her calling card with the Mr. cut off.
In 1925, always one to move with the times, she left for Hollywood, where she built a second studion house; organized the Theater Mart, an experimental theater; and won the Drama League of America award for her play of "The Light House" in 1927. She died suddenly during a concert in 1931, at about 74 - she gave varying dates of f fbirth. Her tomb, in her nnative Ohio, is topped with an understatement: "The Talented One."
Barney was the daughter of Samuel and Ellen Miller pike, who had built an opera house for Jenny Lind in Cincinnati in 1851 and, later, another opera house in New York City.
In recent years, as in the nature of things, Alice Pike Barney's daughter Natalie, whose Paris salon was at least as well known in that country as Gertrude Stein's, is better remembered. Natalie was a major character in Radclyffe Hall's "The Welll of Loneliness," and Djuna Barries' "Ladidiiides Almanack," both novels published in 1928 amid much scandal at their frank treatment of lesbianism.
Earlier, she was the "Lettres a l'Amazone" of Remy De Gourmont in 1914. In more recent years, Meryle Secrest's "Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks" gave a remarkable portrait of the woman. Sylvia Beach's "Shakesphere and Company" mentions Natalie Barney. Wickes' "The Amazon of Letters: The Life and Loves of Natalie Barney" was published in 1976. Natalie Barney's own books, mostly written in French, were primarily poetry and aphorisms.
Her sister, Laura, married a lawyer, Hippolyte Dreyfus y Cordozo, worked for women's rights at the League of Nations and the United Nations and served as the family's financier. The sisters died in Paris in 1972 and 1974 in their 90s.Natalie's grave carries the inscription which, translated, reads: "I am that legendary being wherever I am reborn."
The exhibit at the National of Studio House are proper phoenix-like resurrections of the unbelievable Barneys.
Some who have worked late at Studio House say there is much in the house that has never died - the faint echos of dancing steps, laughter perhaps remembered rather than heard, and most of all, a sort of aura of happiness left over from Alice Pike Barney, a woman who made of herself an object d'art.