How Bohemians in 19th Century Paris Still Inspire Us Today…


(La Lettre– Jean Béraud, Public Domain)

The word Bohemian originated from the label the French gave the gypsies that populated the streets of Paris in the 19th Century. They incorrectly believed that the gypsies, probably Romany in origin, as having immigrated from the Czech province of Bohemia. But the name stuck, and soon became a blanket term for the writers, artists, musicians, notes and actors who also shared the nomadic spirit of the gypsies in the run-down Latin Quarter of the city.

They lived their lives day-to-day and rejected the class-climbing aspirations of the bourgeoisie upper-classes. Material gain, money and hard work, were inconsequential when compared to the joys of artistic passion, freedom, drinking and sexual liberation.

The conservative social rules of Victorian society were scorned in favor of living life on one’s own terms. Bohemians whiled away their days in the famed cafe’s and garrets of Paris, drinking absinthe, cheap wine and being offensive social deviants generally. They were of course the precursors to later counterculture movements such as the 20th Century’s Beats, Hippies and Punks.

And so began the stirrings of subculture in Mid-19th Century Paris. The painting to the below right depicts a young, rather unkempt, long-haired young artist- living in apparent poverty in his studio, surrounded by his easels and painting equipment, hunched over whatever drawing or sketch he’s currently working on. Yet, he seems content and unaware of his threadbare clothes and and rather bleak living conditions. Art and creativity is his ultimate goal and the physical world is secondary- if it even crosses his mind at all.

(Octave Tassaert “The Studio”, via Wikimedia Commons)

Henri Murger, the French novelist and poet, is often attributed to being one the first known Bohemians. He and his artist friends referred to themselves as “The Water Drinkers” as they were too poor to even afford wine (in France? WTF?!?).

They spent their lives at cafes (apparently they could actually afford coffee) and their run-down attic apartments, the experiences of which became the basis for his series of novels Scènes De La Vie de Bohème.

Although he spent most of his life desperately poor, once made into a play, Murger’s “Scene’s” actually did bring him some fame and financial success later on his life- though not before dying at that the tender age of 38, again poor. C’est la vie…

In any case, let’s raise a glass of wine to our Counter Culture forebears: The Bohemians! Here’s to being lazy, carefree, rejecting money, cherishing life in the moment, sleeping with your hot lover, creating passionate art and being a selfish, all around nomadic misfit. Carpe Diem my friends- the past is gone and tomorrow is but a dream!

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