Bohemian Paris: Myth or Fact?

How do you imagine Paris? For the artist in many of us, it is a Bohemian Paris we conjure up and even yearn for. But is Bohemian Paris merely an illusion?

What is a Bohemian, anyway? In the popular view, she is someone unconventional, carefree, and usually involved in the arts. A free spirit who defies society’s rules and dances to her own drums. In this sense, a great many of us would think Paris is Bohemian.

Courbet, Gypsy in Reflection, 1869

Paris is known for its visual arts. Artists from other countries (van Gogh, Picasso, Edward Hopper, for example) have refined their skills and sensibilities in Paris, inspired by French artists (Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse,etc.) who fomented art revolutions. Many think the French espouse free love and open relationships. And, of course, free expression. Parisians are not shy about displaying themselves in public. Doesn’t it, after all, have nude beaches, a nudist park and just recently, a nude museum?

A place called Bohemia does exist where people can rightly call themselves Bohemians. It’s not in France, though, but in the Czech Republic. A Bohemian lifestyle, as popularly imagined, didn’t originate in Bohemia.

Being a Bohemian (the lifestyle) was actually hatched in the mind of Henry Murger, a starving, not-too-gifted mid-1800s artist. And his inspiration for a Bohemian was not the Czech Republic Bohemian. It was, in fact, gypsies.

van Gogh, Gypsy Encampment, 1870

As far back as the 1500s, a group of people roamed everywhere in Europe, playing music, singing, dancing, or acting. They lived free, defying convention and society, and going wherever their feet would take them.

The early images of a gypsy were not flattering, as in this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci.

da Vinci, Man Tricked by Gypsies

In France, they called these people gitans, tsiganes, Romanis. But they were no more natives of France, than of Bohemia. They actually migrated from somewhere in southern India. People first thought they came from Egypt because they were dark, exotic, and believed to possess unusual powers (such as the ability to tell the future). In the 1600s, their reputation as fortune tellers became the subject of many paintings, including one (below) by Georges de la Tour.

Murger felt an affinity to gypsies. To be an artist was, in his reckoning, to be like a gypsy. In the 1840s, he began writing stories about himself and his friends—all struggling to make a go of their art. He compiled them as Scenes de la Vie Bohème.

A young dramatist approached him to rewrite his collection into a play. With the two listed as writers, the play was produced for the theater in 1849. It raised the awareness of Parisians and created enough of a sensation that Murger published it in 1851.

Murger, the starving artist became a successful writer. Artists started flocking to Paris to be part of the scene. Poor, unshackled by social demands and the rules of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, they devoted their lives to art. They lived as vagabonds like the gypsies, with no permanent ties to people or places. Adopting the image of gypsies for their own seemed natural.

Thus was born Bohemian Paris.

Their cachet increased when French writer Honoré de Balzac affirmed in Comédie Humaine the idea of artist as “genius”. Murger’s story became the basis of two operas, the more famous one is Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet

The first well-known artist who might have been Bohemian to the core is Gustave Courbet. He immortalized his own wandering in his painting, Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet. He painted gypsy life, one of which (The Bohemian and her Children) was discovered in 2004.

A series of prints by German expressionist Otto Mueller preceded the purging of gypsies by Nazi Germany. They used Muller’s lithographs of a group of gypsies as examples of degenerate art.

Bohemian Paris may be history, but gypsies live on. Many still follow their nearly-mythic lifestyle. They continue to be persecuted.

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