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Friday, 12 October 2012 23:37

Living is the First Art

Written by 

Natalie Barney


Dear Sappho

What lesbian couples have influenced and inspired you in your artistic and literary pursuits?

Pursuing Art


Dear Pursuing Art

Natalie Barney and two of her lovers Renée Vivien and Romaine Brooks, are women I admire. Natalie Barney (1876-1972) born in Dayton Ohio, was one of the most notorious lesbians since Sappho. She had literally hundreds of lovers in her lifetime and she lived to be 95. In 1900 Barney published her first book. The poems were written in French verse. By publishing them, Barney became the first woman poet to openly write about women who loved women since Sappho. Her mother contributed pastel illustrations of the poems' subjects, completely unaware that three of the four women who modeled for her were her daughter's lovers. When her father found out, he bought up every copy and paid the printer to destroy the plates. So, she moved to Paris, where she published ten more books and for sixty years held a weekly salon that was the epicenter not only of lesbian life but also the city's literary culture.

“Living is the first of all the arts”, said Natalie Barney. For over 60 years, Barney hosted a literary salon in Paris, a weekly gathering at which people met to socialize and discuss literature, art, music and other topics of interest. Barney strove to feature women's writing. Frequent guests included T.S. Eliot, Rilke, Rodin, Ezra Pound, Colette, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Janet Flanner, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Virgil Thomson, Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Somerset Maugham, Ford Maddox Ford, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce., Mata Hari really did begin her Lady Godiva dance by entering on a white horse. In 1979, Natalie Barney was honored with a place setting in Judy Chicago's feminist work of art The Dinner Party.

Barney was smitten with the poet Pauline Tarn, better known by her pen name Renée Vivien. For Vivien it was love at first sight, while Barney became fascinated with Vivien after hearing her recite one of her poems. Their romantic relationship was a delightful, creative exchange of amusement that inspired both of them to write. They adapted the image of courtly love to describe love between women.

Sappho was an especially important influence and they studied Greek together so as to read the surviving fragments of her poetry in the original. Both wrote plays about her life. Vivien saw Barney as a muse.  Vivien saw herself as a poet lover who suffered for the sake of her art. Vivien also steadfastly believed in fidelity, which Barney did not.

Barney's longest relationship was almost 50 years long with the American painter Romaine Brooks who, she met around 1914. Romaine was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard on May 1, 1874 - December 7, 1970. Brooks became famous painting portraits with a somber palette. Brooks tolerated Barney's casual affairs and had a few of her own over the years, but could become jealous whenever a new love became serious. While Brooks was devoted to Barney, she did not want to live with her as a full-time couple; she disliked Paris, disdained Barney's friends, hated the constant socializing on which Barney thrived, and felt that she was fully herself only when alone.

They built a summer home consisting of two separate wings joined by a dining room. Leaving Natalie free to live and love as she willed. Brooks also spent much of the year in Italy or traveling around Europe, away from Barney. They remained devoted to one another for over fifty years. Ironically they broke up in the last six years of their lives after Natalie became lovers with her nurse who was twenty some years younger. Romaine had finally had more than enough and thereafter refused all of Natalie’s love letters, flowers and correspondence for the remaining few years. Romaine died in 1970. Barney died in 1972 at the age of 95.



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