Alice Pike Barney (1857-1931) is best remembered for her efforts to transform Washington, D.C., into the nation's cultural capital during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Barney's interest in art began in her childhood, under the influence of her father, Samuel Nathan Pike, a multimillionaire businessman and active patron of the arts in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Alice married Albert Clifford Barney in 1876, after a short-lived engagement to celebrated African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Although her husband did not approve of her art interests, Alice went to Paris to study with John Singer Sargent's teacher, Carolus-Duran, and with the French pre-Raphaelite painter, Jean Jacques Henner in the fall of 1896-1897. A year later, she returned to Paris to study with expatriate American painter James MacNeill Whistler. Barney returned from her experience in Parisian salons intent on building a thriving arts center in the District that would cater to every member of society, not just the social elite. At the time, Washington, D.C., lacked an indigenous arts community or sufficient galleries to sponsor artists' work. Barney began to show her paintings in exhibitions with other prominent or up-and-coming Washington painters, including James Henry Mosher, Richard Norris Brooke, William Henry Holmes, and Hobart Nichols. In November 1901, she presented her first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art's new Hemicycle gallery. Her unique, individual style moved her rapidly to a position of leadership in local art circles. Within a week of the Corcoran exhibition opening, she was elected vice-president of the Society of Washington Artists.
Barney also earned a reputation in Washington, D.C., for her lavishly detailed, artistically rendered ballets, mimes, tableaux, plays, and other theatrical productions. During World War I, Barney pushed for and convinced Congress to fund the building of the National Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument. The theater, dedicated on April 4, 1917, was the nation's first federally supported outdoor theater.
One of Barney's most important contributions to the Washington art scene was Studio House, located at Sheridan Circle and designed by architect Waddy B. Wood in 1902. During Barney's residence in Washington, D.C., the house functioned as her home, her art studio, and the District's cultural center. Elaborately decorated by Barney herself, the house hosted countless theatrical productions, art exhibitions, and visiting avant-garde artists. Her guest list included the Franklin Roosevelts and Cabot Lodges; Sarah Bernhardt and G. K. Chesterton; Admiral Dewey and the Levi Leiters; Emma Calve and Anna Pavlova; Alice Roosevelt and Chief Justice Harlan; President William H. Taft and Countess Cassini.
Barney also devoted her time and her gift for fund raising to Neighborhood House, a settlement house in southwest Washington, and to the women's suffrage cause. In 1914, she was elected president of the Washington branch of the newly founded Women's Peace Party, established by settlement house founder Jane Addams. In 1927, at age 70, Barney moved to Hollywood, California, to be near her oldest sister. There she continued her painting, opened a small theater called Theatre Mart, and wrote plays, including a rewrite of her daughter Natalie's play The Lighthouse, which won the Drama League of America contest in 1927. In 1931, at the age of 74, Alice Pike Barney died of a heart attack.
Alice's daughters, with whom she remained close, lived most of their lives in Paris. Natalie became an author of books of poetry and aphorisms in French. An outspoken lesbian, Natalie was a longtime lover of expatriate American artist Romaine Brooks. Laura married French lawyer Hippolyte Dreyfuss, was an early proponent of Bahaism, and an active campaigner for women's rights and world peace. She was made a chevalier and then an officier of the French Legion of Honor for her service to France during both World Wars. Both sisters died in Paris in their nineties.
In 1960, Natalie and Laura gave Studio House to the Smithsonian Institution for use as an arts and cultural center. The building initially housed offices and visiting scholars and guests. After renovation in 1980, Studio House was opened to the public for tours and entertainment events, including restagings of several of Alice Pike Barney's plays. In March 1995, the Smithsonian approved the pending sale of Barney Studio House, the proceeds to go toward the endowment fund for its National Museum of American Art.
For more biographical information, see Jean L. Kling's Alice Pike Barney, Her Life and Art (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).