Alice Pike Barney

published february 22, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of Alice Park Barney's (labelled on the program as Mrs. Christian Hemmick) program for "The Enchantress of Streams."

You may have heard of the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Astors who summered here in Bar Harbor, but what about the acclaimed artists who were also here during the town’s heyday? 

Born in 1857, Alice Pike Barney grew up in a household surrounded by the arts. Her parents, Samuel and Ellen Pike, well-known in Cincinnati where she was born, were both philanthropists. 

Alice’s father, who created the first opera house in Cincinnati, had musicians and artists visiting their home growing up. It seemed Alice was destined to live a life in that world, especially when, at nine years old, her family moved to New York City. There, her father built another opera house, called Pike’s Opera House (then later renamed to Grand Opera House), in Manhattan. 

In 1877, a year after she married the wealthy Albert Clifford Barney, Alice began to study painting in Paris with American painter James A. M. Whistler. Albert’s disapproval of his wife’s interests were clear, but after an encounter with Oscar Wilde at New York’s Long Beach Hotel in 1882, it seemed to change the trajectory of Alice’s life. It was the moment she needed to validate her talents so that she could pursue her passions seriously, with or without her husband’s approval. 

In the years following, after having moved to D.C., the Barneys became prominent members in the D.C. social elite clubs: Metropolitan, Alibi, and Chevy Chase. It was also around this time where Albert had built Ban-y-Bryn, their summer cottage in Bar Harbor. Like many other wealthy elites at the time, their cottage was as lavish as their lifestyle; four stories and 27 rooms, perched on a bluff that overlooked Frenchman’s Bay. 

However, this lifestyle, particularly the life they had in D.C., wasn’t making Alice happy; she couldn’t play the role of the dutiful wife and mother without neglecting her artistic pursuits. So, much to her husband’s disapproval again, she moved back to Paris to continue her painting classes with Charles Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. 

She took her knowledge and work she learned from Paris back to D.C., where she sought to become a formidable name and face to the area’s art scene, even joining the Washington Water Color Club. Her passion turned fruitful, earning promising reviews and praise for her submissions. When her husband died in 1902 of a heart attack, she felt more freedom in her pursuits, no longer weighed down by his criticism. 

This freedom evolved into Alice creating her Studio House, the same year her husband passed. It was her intention that Studio House would be the place for the arts, where she could entertain her guests (a list that included former presidents Taft and Roosevelt, and countless other famous politicians, artists, and actors) and work at the same time. It was to be a place of art appreciation and the melting pot between high society and artists to meet and mingle. 

It was at Studio House that she met her second husband, Christian Hemmick, who was a staggering 30 years younger than her; in 1911, they married. However, in 1920, they would divorce, after he filed against her for desertion.   

Despite learning and working in Paris, her artistic nature didn’t stop at painting. She took a page out of her father’s book and decided to try her hat at stage performances. In 1912, a year after she married Christian, Alice, also known as “Mrs. Christian Hemmick,” “composed, taught, and managed” a play of her making, “The Enchantress of Streams,” a “wordless Greek idyll of descriptive dances and pantomime,” a copy of which we are pleased to have in our collection!   

With the Building of Arts in Bar Harbor finished in 1907, we like to think Alice had her plays performed there while she still summered here. And perhaps she did, as we have the copy of “The Enchantress of Streams”! Did it belong to a patron who went on one of the evenings it was performed? Did it belong to one of the actors? We may never know!

Sadly, like many beautiful homes around the area, the Building of Arts and Ban-y-Bryn had perished in the Fire of ‘47, claiming pieces of history in its wake. However, Alice had already sold the summer cottage in 1930, a year before she passed, and as the allure of Bar Harbor as a summer destination was beginning to wane, so everything of importance that would’ve been there in Alice’s cottage would’ve long been removed. 

Though it’s a story for another time, the Fire of ‘47 marked the end of an era for Bar Harbor’s artistic and cultural scene, particularly for the summer’s elite. If you’d like to learn more about the Fire, we have an excellent three-part series on our podcast, Through the Dooryard, available on our website, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Podcasts

Alice Pike Barney was just one of many notable figures who came to enjoy the mild summers and add to the avid cultural scene. Though she certainly wasn’t the only talented artist to frequent our island, her determination to live her life how she wanted was admirable, as women weren’t allowed to succeed, given the societal pressures placed upon them at the time. And though there are many more unheard voices who weren’t presented with the same opportunities as someone who was as wealthy as Alice, any disruption to the status quo was a welcome reprieve and we admire her all the more for it! 

For a thorough telling of Alice’s life and Ban-y-Bryn, please head to those hyperlinks if you’re interested in learning more!

And as always, if you’re interested in becoming a member and being a part of our Historical Society, please consider joining us! Learn about all our perks here. We’d love to have you! See you next week!