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 Barney
SOME BELIEVE when Alice Pike Barney died she didn't go to heaven, or even to Paris, but into the structure of Studio House. She permeates the house on Sheridan Circle. She seems to struggle to escape from the gold frames on the wall. In one, a full-length portrait by Herbert Vos, she comes toward you, curls flying, a smile so eager its vulnerability breaks your heart. She was always like that, coming at life and love fult-tilt, never holding back for caution's sake, never afraid of being rebuffed.
Her self-portraits are stronger, the bubbles burst. They are also less flattering: She may have had illusions about herself, but she didn't feel it necessary to paint them. Oddly enough, she is much more glamorous in photographs of the day than she is in her self-portraits.
She was a tiny woman, barely five feet, according to Wiliam Huntington (her secretary), but she carried herself to make every inch important. Later on, she was plumper, but her flowing draperies masked the pounds very well indeed. She was as adept at costuming as decoration. Most of her clothes were made by the famous French couturier Vionnet.
In the other frames, captured by her brush, are her daughters and her friends, including James McNeil Whistler and George Bernard Shaw, sometimes in close likeness, often as mythical creatures (the "Girl Bathed in the Sun"). Other paintings are by friends, many artists that she supported with her money, with her applause.
Her presence is so real in Studio House that the curator, Jean Lewton, says she always feels as though Alice Barney is standing just outside the corner of her eye. Even people who don't know as much as Lewton (who has made an exhaustive study of Barney) hear echoes: light steps on the stairs, golden glints caught by passing sunlight, and laughter a decibel too high to hear. Some people would not wish to stay too long in Studio House, lest they be possessed by this spirit so eager for life. Her daughter Natalie's self-composed epitaph reads: "Je suis cet etre legendaire ou je revis " (I am that legendary being wherever I am reborn).
One overnight visitor saw, at the foot of her bed, Alice Barney, her long hair streaming behind her, her flowing white dress swooshing softly on the floor. She vanished when the visitor screamed.
But you don't have to believe in ghosts that walk to see Alice Barney in Studio House. She was not a woman to leave this life without burning a streak of light behind her, like the tail on a comet. She lived in the house, with off-and-on trips to Paris and to California (where she invested in sound movies and wrote plays and screen scripts) from 1903 until 1926. She died in 1931 at either 71 or 74 -- she was always a bit vague about age.
From Sheridan Circle, you can stare at Studio House and note the quatrefoil windows, the mosaic coat of arms (borrowed from another family with the same name), the stone and stucco walls, the psuedo-Mediterranean tiled roof and the Arts and Crafts Movement style. One she brought home a nude marble statue from Paris for the front lawn -- the traffic jam was terrible.
It must have seemed very small but brave when it was only the second house on the circle. In 1902, when the house was built, Sheridan Circle was outside the City of Washington and in the District of Columbia.
Studio House has recently been put into good condition -- not restored, because even the Smithsonian couldn't afford all that amount of red and gold brocade for the walls, and the tapestries which were such a feature of the decoration would dissolve in a proof of dust if they were hung one more time.
Under the watchful and loving eye of Joshua Taylor, director of the National Museum of American Art and himself once a stage designer, the walls have been replastered and repainted, the chairs recovered in closely matching velvets, the roof repaired and the electrical and alarm system reworked.
Unfortunately, over Taylor's anguished cries, the security people have insisted on disfiguring the back of the house with a giant fire escape, called by Lewton "big enough for an army marching four abreast".
The house is now ready to receive guests, as "the meeting place for wit and wisdom, genius and talent," as it was once said to be. Evenings at Barney Studio House, 2306 Massachusetts Ave. NW, will resume March 31 (See story below). The upper two floors, in the Barney tradition, are reserved as a transient home for visiting art scholars.
It's been more than 50 years since Alice Pike Barney, in the flowing white robe she considered the proper costume for an artiste, painted her own likeness in the great studio room of her house on Sheridan Circle.
She was always down to paint before 10 in the morning, though the night before she may have danced a tarantella, or declaimed poetry, or given a soiree on behalf of woman suffrage. In her big floppy hats with the peek-a-boo veil, her breast bared to just the centimenter proper to her position in life, she may have seemed a lightheaded, flirtatious society woman.
Flirtatious yes, she was that. Lightheaded too, if you mean her blond head was full of happy thoughts about joy and beauty and art. But like many women whose lives began on the other side of the century and turned with it, she hid her ability behind a mask of comedy.
She was an artist in a day when artists were bohemians and not received in polite society. She took pay for her art though she was a millionaire. She painted hundreds of very good pictures, she wrote some 50 plays, many of them produced, and an unpublished autobiography as good as any romantic novel of the period.
She was the great love in the life of Henry Morton Stanley, who found Dr. Livingston but lost "Lady Alice." She was a socialite at a time when the rules were tightly circumscribed. She married first a dull man who valued her for the wrong reasons, and she married secondly Christian Hemmick, who left her for a dancer (male) and charged her with desertion. (She announced their divorce by cutting the Mr. off her calling cards.)
She spent her money on artists who had talent, men who looked like Greek gods, and young people because they were young. She thought most of the time she was well-repaid. And she raised a daughter whose deathbed valedictory would have served her mother: "I have perhaps gotten more out of life than it possesses."
On a beam supporting the musician's gallery in her studio, Goethe's bon mot is stenciled: "The highest Problem of Art is to Cause by Appearance the Illusion of Higher Reality."
Illusion, ah, Alice Barney understood illusion. She lived in illusion, let others sink into reality.
Studio House was built as a stage set for Alice Barney's performing arts. Joshua Taylor explained her period best in a foreword to show of her work at the then National Collection of Fine Arts in 1958:
". . . the artist with high aesthetic leanings surrounded himself with objects to dream about, evoking a world that was sensuously present and intellectually remote. . ."
In Britain, the Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts and Crafts Movement united those who vowed to return to a day when art sprang from nature and artists grew in brotherhoods. They believed in the sanctity of handwork and that beauty and goodness, as Taylor wrote, were inseparable.
That handmade objects carried with them blessings was a thought that spread rapidly to Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and the United States. It squared itself into the Secession, it dreamed the Symbolist style and it eventually grew up to be Modern.
But for all its high-mindedness, the turn-of-the-century style always had the air of children dressed up in their parent's clothes, pretending to be pirates or painters or presidents. Their reality was illusion.
Studio House was built in this spirit though her taste, unfortunately, was far more traditional than contemporary. So instead of making a great collection of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts furniture and objects then being produced, she filled the house with dubious l9th-century copies. Except for a few Tiffany pieces, there is little of great value in the house -- many choice pieces went to relatives. But the entire effect is a wonderful stage set for the Artist's life operetta she wanted to lead.
Taylor wrote in a brochure: "Alice Pike Barney had in mind an environment that would make this absorption into art an easy reality. Every aspect of the place, from its architecture to its many-layered furnishings, led the mind systematically away from the mundane and expected, to revel in memory and the exploration of artistic delights. 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.
"To be sure, Mrs. Barney was an accomplished painter, not simply an amateur of artistic places . . . [but] Art or her was a manner of being . . ."
Barney began to build her Studio House though she had, thank you very much, a magnificent mansion at 1626 Rhode Island Ave. NW (now demolished); another grand house on 2223 R St. NW (now an embassy) designed by George Oakley Totten, the architect for another grande dame of the time, Mary Henderson; not to mention the Barneys' 25-room cottage at Bar Harbor, Maine. But she had lived in Paris and in London and she had studied painting with John Singer Sargent, writing with Oscar Wilde and life with James McNeil Whistler. She thought that to be an artist you had to have a proper studio, the right stage setting. Not for her circle, a carrot in a garret.
For her artist friends the proper vase or the correct waistcoat, or the precise shade of white on a wall was just as much art as what they put on the canvas. The painter Whistler did not hesitate to design interiors to make a setting for his paintings. His masterpiece, the "Peacock Room," still survives in the Freer Gallery of Art. As a decorator, she was not in his class.
It's possible that Barney began Studio House with the idea of using it as only a studio, a guest and playhouse, as an escape from the stuffy gentility of the house she shared with her husband. But Albert Barney conveniently died shortly after she started to build the house, and she finished if off with his insurance money.
Not that she needed his money. She had plenty of her own. Her father, who built illusions himself, opera houses in Cincnnati and New York, had left her $2 million, and her husband inherited a fair amount himself. But she always had people and causes for her money -- aspiring art students, charming and good-looking young people, lost and found causes.
Her architect was Waddy Wood, a young, self-taught Virginian.It was his first commission. Her lot was a steep wooded hillside overlooking Rock Creek. The contractor was Charles A. Langley, who had worked for her before. Likely the Mediterranean style was Wood's contribution, popularized by a 1901 Pan American exhibit in Baltimore, but some authorities see in it reflections of James Whistler's White House in London.
The interior was all Alice Barney, though Wood protested at one of her sketches, "Madame, you left out the staircase."
She remodeled it over the years, but it was well-documented with 500-odd (some very odd) photographs, fortunately preserved in the Museum of American Art's Barney memorial collections.
You come into the house through an arched entryway, big enough for her tiny electric car. The resulting courtyard is under the piano nobile (main floor). Double doors lead to what once was a small garage. (she later bought the side lot from her sister and built a bigger garage.) Stairs go up through a heavy door continuing into an inside tiled stairway.
The hall has heavy, stenciled wood columns. A large mirror covers one wall. The windows and doors are all framed with dark wood, peaking slightly at the top in the Arts and Crafts manner. A mosaic coat of arms, with the motto "To overcome calamity by hard work" was made by the Mercer tile factory. The crest, Lewton says, is indeed that of the Barneys, but not the family from which Albert came. "All her life, Natalie said they were from the Commodore Barney family, but there's no such evidence."
The hall is lighted with wonderful sconces, a sort of blue-green translucent glass. The shades were originally handblown by Tiffany, but the missing ones had to be molded in West Virginia.
William Huntington, who first came to the house in 1925 as Alice Barney's secretary, with the guest room next to hers, remembers that guests were received in the drawing room to the right of the entrance.
The room is on two levels, forming a stage. You enter on the lower level, where the large fireplace is. The large, heavily carved furniture here is original to the house, as are the rest of the furniture and rugs. The room seems, to put it mildly, amply furnished, but a 1904 photograph shows that originally there was 10 times more of everything -- pictures, ornaments, furniture, rugs, hangings, draperies and some things hard to name.
"She and her sister were traveling in Spain and Portugal about the time the house was built. They found an antique stroe that was for sale, and bought the whole thing," said Huntington the other day. (He now lives in Spain, but is in Washington currently for medical treatment. He has been an invaluable consultant on the history of the Barneys because of his almost half a century as the Barney women's secretary, man of business and confidante.)
The ceiling was stenciled. A huge tapestry of a mythical subject, hung on one wall. Silver-plated sconces were attached to the fireplace over-mantle on either side of a heavily carved wooden inset. There was an embroidered hanging over it. A niche held ceramic figures. A table was covered with an appliqued cloth and boxes, figurines and urns. The original rug, an Oushab Turkish, is still on the floor. Most of the furniture in the house seems to be 19th-century copies of Spanish Renaissance designs.
The room was divided by two ornate columns, heavily decorated with grapes and leaves, perhaps plaster. A banquette, covered in velvet, is set between. Three steps lead up to the upper level, walls draped with brocade.
Somewhere along the line, the ornate columns were encased or replaced by much simpler Arts-and-Crafts-style boxed columns. On the upper level was a handsome bureau. Now a wonderfully ornate chest sits there.
The picture in here are well-selected to populate the room with her friends. A self-portrait of her later years acts as hostess over the fireplace. The Carolus-Duran portrait of Natalie is on one wall. Both Alice Barney and John Singer Sargent studied with him.
Across the hall is the library, used mostly as a coat room, because Alice Barney preferred writing to reading. Taylor and Lewton hope to eventually hang it with some of the photographs from the collection. The dining room is next door. Originally, the kitchen was in the basement, and only a small pantry on the main floor. Today, the pantry has been fitted up as kitchen.Several exclusive and magnificent dinners and luncheons have come from it.
In the dining room a floral fabric is alternated with carved wooden panels, probably 19th-century Welsh. More panels make a screen for the kitchen. A heavy sideboard is in the same manner. Heraldic stencils have been repainted above the wood panels. The ceiling is crisscrossed with beams. At one end is a fountain, a copy of one in Florence, set against a tile wall. A mirror now stands where once a full-length portrait did. The rug was especially woven in India for the house.
After dinner, Huntington said guests would go upstairs to the big room which served as theater, ballroom and painting studio. The upstairs is divided into a smaller salon on the north which itself has a small alcove. She would write in this alcove in the mornings, rest there in the afternoon, before receiving her lady guests in the flowing tea robes not proper for the reception of men.Originally the salon had Louis XVI gilded furniture from her Rhode Island Avenue House, but the Barney sisters gave it away after their mother's death.
The story goes that the wall-sized mirror at one end was torn out of the White House during the Teddy Roosevelt remodeling. It's a shame she didn't take instead the Tiffany screen now lost.
Her pastel portraits of George Bernard Shaw, looking very devilish, and James McNeil Whistler are on the wall. In the alcove is her wonderful painting, "Woman Clothed in the Sun." The portrait was of her niece, a commissioned piece, but the girl's father refused it.
The principal room is, in a word, hilarious, though it certainly is stripped down from its original 1904 opulence. Tapestries hung on the wall, paintings leaned against ever chair, tiger rugs (complete with heads, it was an unenlightened time) were on the tiled floor. Chandeliers hung from many places.
The ornate columns seen in early pictures of the lower level still stand here. The hold up a musician's gallery (so called because it wasn't tall enough for people to stand on, only to sit to play). The stage was under the balcony in front of the fireplace. She would paint in this room in the mornings, under the south-facing skylight, now dimmed in respect for the paintings.
Today the walls are hung with paintings. The marvelous Vos portrait of Mrs. B. has the place of honor. One contemporary clipping accuses her of going riding with her arms full of flowers as she's portrayed. Another painting, a self-portrait, shows her in deshabille in her white painting robe. Taylor says the servants would wash her brushes when she was through. She had several shows of her work, at the Corcoran here as well as in New York, Boston and Paris, where she was received seriously by often surprised critics. A marble bust of of Barney shows her at 15 or so.
The spendid Quezel lamps were bought by the Smithsonian for the house.
In 1926, Alice Pike Barney was satisfied or at least surfeited with her efforts to make Washington safe for art. She had established in the Sylvan Theater by small lunches for President Theodore Roosevelt in Studio House. She had worked with a committee toward a National Gallery of Art. She also established Barney neighborhood house.
She was ready to move on. She established the Theater Mart in California, wrote and produced seven plays, one which won an award as the best play of 1927, and remodeled another house there in an avocado grove. She died in 1931 as she walked into a concert at the McDowell Club in Los Angeles.
After that, the house was rented because her daughters Laura and Natalie lived in France. Natalie, a French poet, had a salon the rival of Gertrude Stein's. She was an important character in several books: "Amazon of Letters," and Meryle Secrest's "Between Me and Life: a Biography of Romaine Brooks." Laura was more staid.She married a lawyer and worked for women's rights. In 1968 the house was given to the National Collection of Fine Arts. For a time it was used as offices, until rescued by Joshua Taylor. Natalie died at 95 in Paris, 1972. Laura died at 94 in Paris, 1974.
Studio House, its collections of memories and Natalie's books are all that is left of the Barney women. Few people leave as much.