Natalie Barney was both a poet and a prose writer, who was famous for her weekly salons, which gathered together many of the twentieth century's greatest artists and writers from the Western world. She is celebrated for openly living and writing as a lesbian during a time when women's behavior was closely circumscribed. Barney is also known as "The Amazon," a nickname given to her by the poet Remy de Gourmont after she made headlines for riding a horse astride, rather than sidesaddle, which was customary. In French, "l'Amazone" means both horse rider and Amazon, the warrior women of Greek mythology.
Barney was born on October 31, 1876, to a wealthy family. She was an intelligent and rebellious child, educated by governesses and at a French boarding school. At an early age, she showed an interest in art and writing. After her father's death in 1902, Barney received a substantial inheritance that allowed her complete financial independence for her lifetime. She settled in Paris, and her network of friends rapidly expanded.
In 1909, she took up what was to be a sixty-year residence at 20 Rue Jacob and began her "Fridays," as she referred to her salon (a gathering of intellectuals for the exchange and discussion of ideas). The salon was held in her home in Paris's Latin Quarter, and hosted hundreds of famous guests over the years, including writers Colette and Gertrude Stein, and dancer/choreographer Isadora Duncan, as well as artist Auguste Rodin, poet T.S. Eliot, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, among others. Musical concerts, plays, dance performances, and literary readings were held there. Barney also promoted women's writing, forming L'Académie des Femmes (Women's Academy) in 1927, in response to L'Académie Française, which only admitted men.
Barney was a prolific writer. During her lifetime she published five volumes of poetry; three of epigrams; two books of essays; one novel, The One Who is Legion, or AD's After-Life, 1930, her only book published in English; and three memoirs, Aventures de l'Esprit, 1929; Souvenirs Indiscrets, 1960; and Traits et Portraits, 1963. Barney's writing, in its many forms, covered topics including pacifism, homosexuality, feminism, and Paganism. She was particularly well known for her epigrams—short, witty sentences that cut to the heart of a person or situation. Typically composed with lightening speed in response to a comment, her witticisms were recorded on scraps of paper and eventually compiled into the books, Èparpillements, 1910; Pensées d'une Amazone, 1920; and Nouvelles Pensées de l'Amazone, 1939. Some of her epigrams include: Youth is not a question of years: one is young or old from birth; There are more evil ears than bad mouths; and Eternity—waste of time.
Because Barney lived at the center of Parisian society, did not believe in monogamy, and was openly a lesbian, her relationships were the subject of numerous writings as well as a source of gossip and speculation. Some of Barney's more notorious romantic relationships were with arts patron Evalina Palmer, the courtesan Liane de Pougy, the writer Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, the writer Elizabeth de Gramont, as well as the poet Renée Vivien, and the painter Romaine Brooks. Her affairs became the subject of many novels, though often disguised, including Liane de Pougy's Idylle sapphique or Sapphic Idyll, 1901, and the famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, 1928, by Radclyffe Hall. Barney had hundreds of shorter liaisons as well, many of which were also immortalized in contemporaneous biographies and fictions.
After a long life devoted to writing and supporting literature and the arts, Natalie Barney died in 1972 at the age of 96. She composed her own prophetic epitaph, which reads, "I am this legendary being in which I will live again."
Natalie Barney's plate at The Dinner Party is patterned after a Tiffany bowl and takes its shape from the lily, a flower Barney favored. Traditionally a symbol of femininity, the lily was a common motif in Art Nouveau, an artistic style characterized by curved lines and natural motifs popular in the 1890s when Barney arrived in Paris. It was also the emblem of one of Barney's first lovers, the famous courtesan Liane de Pougy, and Barney later adopted the lily as her own symbol.
The plate is lustered in iridescent shades of blue and violet with gold accents and beading that represents the glamour and opulence of Barney's life. The beaded gold trim, as well as the lily motif, is repeated in the illuminated letter "N" on the front of the runner.
The runner also mimics the Art Nouveau style and color palette of the plate. The multi-colored fabric, art-deco silk from the 1920s or 30s, resembles the wings of a butterfly. Sections of the butterfly form are outlined with black glass beads and overlaid with layers of sheer fabric, mimicking the plate's iridescence and also suggesting the luxurious nature of Barney's life. The butterfly motif is repeated throughout The Dinner Party to symbolize women's struggle to be free to pursue their own dreams, and in this place setting "the butterfly form, its edges almost entirely free from the geometric constraints of the runner, suggest the freedom of expression that was offered by Barney's salon and embodied in her life" (Chicago, The Dinner Party,147).
Related Heritage Floor Entries
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Cing petits dialogues grecs. Paris: La Plume, 1901.
Pensées d'une Amazone. Paris: Emile Paul, 1920.
Aventures de l'esprit. Paris: Emile Paul, 1929.
The One Who is Legion, or A.D.'s After-Life. London: Eric Partridge, Ltd., 1930.
Traits et portraits. Paris: Mercure de France, 1963.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Benstock, Sheri. Women of the Left Bank. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.
Chalon, Jean. Portrait of a Seductress: The World of Natalie Barney. New York: Crown, 1979.
Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Livia, Anna, ed. A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria Publishers, 1992.
----, trans. Angel and the Perverts by Lucie Delarue-Mardrus. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Robinson, Christopher. Scandal in the Ink: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century French Literature. London: Cassell, 1995.
Rodriguez, Suzanne. Wild Heart, A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney's Journey from Victorian America to Belle Époque Paris. New York: Ecco, 2002.
Souhami, Diana. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.
Weiss, Andrea. Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank. London and San Francisco: Pandora, 1995.
Wickes, George. The Amazon of Letters: The Life and Loves of Natalie Barney. New York: Putnam, 1976.