Bohemian Artists, Mid-1800s

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Bohemian. A word often uttered with a mix of admiration, confusion, and mockery. Usually we think of a bohemian as someone who’s unconventional, footloose and carefree. Quite likely, she’s also an artist or maybe, a writer.

A place called Bohemia does exist. In the Czech Republic. But that’s not where the concept of a Bohemian—as we often use the term —comes from. In fact, if you were to associate Bohemian with a place, you’re more likely to think of Paris. For good reasons.

The mid-1800s was a fertile, exciting period for artists and writers in Paris. Henry Murger, a poor, not-too-gifted artist observed that he and his peers were like gypsies as he wrote a collection of short stories (Scenes de la Vie Bohème) about his life and that of his friends. The image of a Bohemian Paris was taking shape in his mind.

Bohemian is an image. Or, maybe, an attitude first attributed to gypsies or Romanis.

Sylvain Amic, curator of an exhibition, Bohemias, at the Grand Palais in Paris, says,

“The bohemian is regarded as having no country, always on the move, sensual, deeply in tune with nature, and imbued with a mystery that eludes much of society.”

They were also reputed to be artistic in music, dance, and theater. True or not, these ideas have resonated with artists and may have spurred them on their quest for artistic freedom.

TASSAERT, Octave, Studio Interior, 1845, oil on canvas, 46 cm (18.1 in). Width: 38 cm (15 in), Louvre Museum


BLIN, Jules, Art, misère, désespoir, folie, 1880, huile sur toile, 146 cm x 115 cm, Musée des beaux arts, Dijon

Bohemian artists and writers frequented and enlivened the cafés of Paris. At the Café Guerbois, for example, Edouard Manet, often credited as the father of modern art, reigned among impressionists. This young fired-up group of artists revolted against classic traditions in art.

Quite a number of their paintings were about another legendary Parisian “invention.” The bustling café culture. You could think of these cafés as the social media hub for Bohemian artists and writers. Later, many of them moved to other places in Île de France. Montmartre also became a pied-à-terre for many starving, gifted artists and writers. Now it’s a tourist must-see,

Among well-known writers of the period were Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Friends of Edouard Manet, both were prolific writers.

In 1849, Scènes de la Vie Bohème was made into a play. It was so popular that it was published as a book in 1851. The book was later made into two operas. One of them is the popular La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini.

Illustration of Henry Murger's Scènes... Illustration of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème: Paris L. Cartheret éditeur, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bohemian Paris in mid-19th century fascinated me. Enough for me to include scenes set in it in Margaret of the North,the first novel I wrote.

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