Bohemian Artists, Mid-1800s

Bohemian. You’ve heard that word before. You may even know someone who’s been called a Bohemian. Usually that someone is rather unconventional and carefree. Quite likely, she’s also an artist or maybe, a writer.

A place called Bohemia does exist. It’s a region 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. There is a very good reason for that.

The mid-1800s was an exciting period for artists and writers. My romantic illusions of it prodded me, partly, to write Margaret of the North. The image of a Bohemian Paris was then taking shape, nurtured by a poor, not-too-gifted artist. Henry Murger wrote a collection of short stories about his life and that of his friends. In it, he depicted the artist as a Bohemian. 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.

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)

The book was later made into two operas. One of them is the popular La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini.

Bohemian is an image. Or, maybe, an attitude. It was 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. They may even be behind 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 reigned among impressionist artists. He’s the artist who may have ushered in modern art, This group 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.
 
 

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