Barney Opens Her Paris Salon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Natalie Clifford Barney opened her Left Bank home in Paris to some of the most prominent artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century, initiating what was to become a weekly salon, or literary gathering, of women and men of all sexualities.

Summary of Event

Drawing on the long French history of the successful operation of salons, a tradition that started during the Renaissance, and on her flamboyant personal history as a host, expatriate heir Natalie Clifford Barney opened the doors of her home in the Left Bank area of Paris to a range of artists, writers, bohemians, aristocrats, and freethinkers in October of 1909. The gesture made her address, 20 Rue Jacob, 20 Rue Jacob, Paris synonymous with unorthodox thought, avant-garde creativity, and heterogeneous internationalism. [kw]Barney Opens Her Paris Salon (Oct., 1909) [kw]Paris Salon, Barney Opens Her (Oct., 1909) [kw]Salon, Barney Opens Her Paris (Oct., 1909) Salons, literary, Paris Parisian literary salons Avant-garde, and lesbian and gay culture[Avant garde] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Oct., 1909: Barney Opens Her Paris Salon[0220] [c]Literature;Oct., 1909: Barney Opens Her Paris Salon[0220] [c]Feminism;Oct., 1909: Barney Opens Her Paris Salon[0220] Barney, Natalie Clifford

Natalie Clifford Barney, 1892.

Barney’s lesbian sexuality provided her legendary Friday night salons with a warm acceptance of sexual diversity, as she and many of her friends drew on classical Greek models of love between women for artistic inspiration. Strikingly, Barney’s property on Rue Jacob featured a Doric-columned edifice on which the word “Temple of Friendship” had been carved in French. The temple stood in a wild garden, which provided a sense of natural abandon in the heart of the city. This environment provided the setting for countless amateur theatricals and masquerades in which Barney and friends performed, many celebrating the ancient poet Sappho and her circle.

Though these parties occurred regularly in the garden, a different kind of gathering began to develop within the walls of Barney’s Rue Jacob residence. Having been warned that the floors of her house were not sturdy enough to tolerate much dancing, Barney began to formulate plans for calmer entertainment: She thought of the salon. Thus, beginning in 1909, from five to eight on every Friday evening that Barney was in town, members of the Parisian literati and avant-garde could be found partaking of generous offerings of pastries, sandwiches, libations (both alcoholic and otherwise) and, above all, conversation. The number of guests ranged from the average of thirty to thirty-five up to two hundred for special events.

Before its closing at Barney’s death in 1972, the Rue Jacob salon had welcomed an impressive array of twentieth century luminaries, but a relatively small group who were to become regulars appeared at the first few Friday gatherings. Probable attendees at the opening included Count Robert de Montesquiou, the model for Baron de Charlus in French writer Marcel Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931); novelist and poet Lucie Delarue-Mardrus and her husband Joseph Charles Mardrus, translator of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1885) into French; and memoirist Elizabeth de Gramont, the duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre. Interestingly, both women of this group had been Barney’s lovers and Montesquiou was gay, but salon guests’ sexualities were heterogeneous. At the time the salon ended, its visitors had included heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, and gay cultural figures and artists, including Paul Claudel, Auguste Rodin, George Antheil, Sylvia Beach, Rainer Maria Rilke, André Gide, Rabindranath Tagore, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Anatole France, Ezra Pound, Isadora Duncan, Paul Valéry, and Gabriele D’Annunzio.

This partial guest list disproves the myth that Barney’s salon presented a woman-only space, although in 1927, with the inauguration of Barney’s Académie des Femmes Académie des Femmes (academy of women), the salon took a decidedly feminist Feminism;and literary salons[literary salons] turn. Having long toyed with the idea of forming an alliance of women writers, Barney finally executed the plan in 1927 by forming an association designed for women to read their works and pay tribute to one another. The name of the association shows that Barney was consciously providing an alternative to the exclusive Académie Française Académie Française (French Academy), a French cultural institution that excluded women writers until it finally admitted modernist writer Marguerite Yourcenar (also a friend of Barney) in 1980. Despite the Académie des Femmes’ feminist goal of providing support and exposure to women writers, men were invited to its special events and, as in the case of Ezra Pound, were occasionally subsidized by the association.

Although the regular salon had little official direction, the meetings of the Académie des Femmes held a series of special Friday evenings, each honoring a woman of letters. On January 14, 1927, writer Colette performed selected scenes from her work La Vagabonde (1911; The Vagabond, 1954). The academy then honored writer Gertrude Stein in February with more than two hundred people in attendance. Stein also had hosted a salon in Paris in the early part of the century, which attracted mostly men, in contrast to Barney’s salon. Though the women’s academy faded after 1927, it honored important female modernists such as Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes and talents of the time such as Rachilde, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and Elizabeth de Gramont, the duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre.

Significance

A fictionalized version of Barney’s salon is included in Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928. That same year, Djuna Barnes released Ladies Almanack, a privately printed spoof on Barney and her lesbian circle. Barney not only appears in a range of memoirs and novels but also is the author of twelve published books of various genres. In part because Barney wrote in French, much of her work is only slowly being recovered, translated, and made available to the non-French-reading public.

Though Barney’s salon was selective in that a person had to be invited or brought by a guest to attend, and although Barney reportedly aligned with fascism during World War II, her legend and her famous salon also live on in the hearts and minds of lesbians and gays seeking a dynamic, unapologetic predecessor who, for more than sixty years, entertained, provoked, and supported some of the greatest talents of her time. Salons, literary, Paris Parisian literary salons Avant-garde, and lesbian and gay culture[Avant garde]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barney, Natalie Clifford. Adventures of the Mind. Translated by John Spalding Gatton. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crane, Sheila. “Mapping the Amazon’s Salon: Symbolic Landscapes and Topographies of Identity in Natalie Clifford Barney’s Literary Salon.” In Gender and Landscape: Renegotiating Morality and Space, edited by Lorraine Dowler, Josephine Carubia, and Bonj Szczygiel. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodriguez, Suzanne. Wild Heart: A Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wickes, George. The Amazon of Letters: The Life and Loves of Natalie Barney. New York: Popular Library, 1978.

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