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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Natalie Clifford Barney

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Natalie Clifford Barney. [between ca. 1890 and ca. 1910]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) was born to a wealthy railroad car manufacturing family in Dayton, Ohio, though her circle of literary and artistic influence was transatlantic and spanned nearly a century. From the time she was a young girl, Barney had a strong sense of self and identified as a lesbian. She would go on to become an outspoken writer, artist, and host of literary salons for women in her Paris home throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In addition to her highly publicized affairs with other women of her social milieu in Paris, including Liane de Pougy, Eva Palmer, and Renee Vivien, Barney also used these connections to collaborate with these women in their own artistic endeavors. Barney’s work was heavily influenced by Sappho’s fragments and classical Greek aesthetics. Beyond her personal affairs, today Barney is likely known for her literary salon, held in her Paris home from the early 1900s. In addition to hosting an ‘Academie des Femmes’ in which she promoted women’s writing, these salons also served as a means of collaboration with other artists and writers of the day. She believed that American, British and French writers should know one another and translate each other's works and with that in view she served as literary hostess to famous talents including Colette, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Paul Valéry, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Proust and Sinclair Lewis.

Her wealth and social status as an intellectual afforded her many privileges, as did her unusual self-assuredness in her own rights to love and write publicly about the women she loved and spent time with. Despite this, Barney lived during a time when homosexuality was not widely accepted and faced discrimination from her own family as well as ridicule from both French and American society. For example, when her father, Albert Clifford Barney, discovered the lesbian themes of her first book, Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes in 1900, he bought and destroyed the publisher’s remaining stock and the plates used to print the book. Until his death in 1902, Barney would publish anonymously under the pseudonym Tryphe. At the same time, her inheritance of nearly $9 million dollars would afford her the resources to publish poems, essays, and plays under her own name for the rest of her life.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century and Feminism in the 20th Century.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following heading:

Barney, Natalie Clifford

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