The Birth of Bohemian Culture

Unorthodox and anti-establishment, the adherents of bohemian culture despised convention and rejected bourgeois values, as artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh embraced a new-found artistic freedom. Fuelled by a love of absinthe, they ushered in a new liberal age of avant-garde art from the salons, cafés, and brothels of Montmartre that provided an exciting departure point for Modern Art.

Bohemia, bordered on the North by hope, work, and gaiety, on the South by necessity and courage; on the West and East by slander and the hospital,”

Henry Murger, author of the play La Vie de Bohème 

Fully immersed in art and creativity, bohemian artists were proud of their non-conformity and opposition to the conventions of bourgeois society. As much a state of mind as it was an artistic movement, being Bohemian was a reflection of oneself and society. Mixing rebellion with ambition and absinthe, bohemians blurred the line between their unencumbered art and their hedonistic lifestyle.

Devoted to free expression, the enthusiastic pursuit of pleasure and sexual freedom as part of an impoverished life of inspired intoxication was central to bohemian life. Possessed by inspiration, the pairing of art and bohemian life have always been akin, and it was the marginalized artists, writers, and musicians in 19th century Paris that embodied this. Identifiable through a rebellious approach to life, and a thirst for absinthe and wine made by the nuns at the church of Le Sacré Coeur, the bohemian population was diverse and shared its roots with another ostracized minority in France.

Similarly perceived as outsiders from conventional society, the term ‘bohemians’ was initially applied judgementally to Romani people. Outsiders and vilified, the name was slowly romanticized by artists, replacing the idea of a shady world of prostitutes, beggars and con men. And thanks to the lower-rent in the gypsy neighbourhood of Montmartre in 19th century Paris, young artists were drawn to the margins of popular society and the rebellious appeal of bohemian life, as shown in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, which presented bohemian life and all the inner contradictions in bourgeois society.

The perceived historical similarities between the urban Bohemians and the Romani people was firmly established by the rise of bohemianism in 19th century France. Arriving in the 15th century via Bohemia (western Czech Republic today), Bohemia was transposed to become a state of mind for the artistic and social rebels who had no time for conventions, as they explored free love, homosexuality, drugs and alcoholism. Today they might be called hippies or punks, as they embedded themselves in an unconventional way of life that defined their artistic careers and lives.

And artists and poets from Charles Baudelaire to Vincent van Gogh characterised bohemian ideals from the taverns, salons, and cafes where Bohemian culture and artists flourished with a near religious zeal.

Salons and the Underbelly

Birth of Bohemian Culture:

Edouard Manet – Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère. Sold for £16,949,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2015)

Aided by a Parisian cocktail of drugs, alcohol, and sexual expression, this subculture flourished in the dangerous and intense Montmartre, which lay between a brothel and a hospital. Today it’s painted with romantic nostalgia, but Paris in the late 19th century was in a flux of social transition, with the art depicting a new urban world. And this wildness and depth was memorably captured by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who lived bohemian ideals as a regular visitor to Moulin Rouge and brothels, where he depicted dancers and prostitutes with honesty, while embracing the richness of human beauty and personality.

Birth of Bohemian Culture: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Bohemian (or Lise the Bohemian.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Bohemian (or Lise the Bohemian. Public Domain Image.

La Goulue was one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite dancers and she can be seen in the background of his masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge (above). The exotic and exciting scene reflected his lifestyle as he would move into brothels for months at a time, where he became entrenched in the day-to-day life of the prostitutes, which is evident in the painting in the Salon at Rue des Moulins: The Sofa, in which tired and resigned prostitutes wait for clients.

In the salons of Montmartre, absinthe was a favored drink for the free thinking Impressionists Edouard Manet, Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, who were all heavily influenced, inspired, and enchanted by the green fairy. Toulouse-Lautrec even said, “of course, one should not drink much, but often,” so it’s perhaps unsurprising to know he would fill a hollowed cane with absinthe to ensure he was never without alcohol. After collapsing due to exhaustion and life-long alcoholism, he was committed to a sanatorium where he drew 39 circus portraits.

Similarly, Van Gogh had a loose grip on his alcohol consumption, and absinthe deliriums are thought have influenced much of his work. This was evident in Arles, where he painted Café Terrace at Night and was living with Gauguin. They quarrelled often and on one occasion during an absinthe delirium, he cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute. He drew Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear in the aftermath.

Not only an obsession, absinthe was also the subject of Impressionist paintings, with Manet immortalizing an alcoholic in The Absinthe Drinker. The full figure portrait broke convention that was usually reserved for aristocracy and royalty in the 19th century and applied it to a modern Parisian scene. Degas’ Absinthe Drinker depicts Ellen Andree, his muse, with a glass of absinthe in the Parisian Café de la Nouvelle Athenes. Criticized by anti-absinthe advocates, the painting was used as an illustration of the isolation and misery brought by the potent spirit.

The pursuit of pleasure and sexual freedom also ensured that prostitution was a central part of daily life in 19th-century Paris. Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass scandalized the French Salon thanks to the female nudes’ placement in a modern setting, accompanied by clothed bourgeois men. Manet embodied the bohemian lifestyle, despite his upper-class upbringing, and his strikingly modern images of urban life showed disregard for the academic conventions of the time. Such was his impact that this painting marked a departure point for Modern Art, and together with a handful of other hedonistic artists they would define what is truly is to be bohemian.

European Bohemians

Being bohemian might well have been a state of mind, but the beating heart of Bohemia in the 19th century was undoubtedly to be found in Montmartre. The district was a safe haven for the artistic leanings of Emile Zola, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It was perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec who embodied the bohemian love of art, sexual freedom, and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, as he was regularly mixed business and pleasure at the Moulin Rouge, where he had his own table.

The venue survives today, although in a much more sanitized form, but when it opened in 1889, the debauchery of the venue not only appealed to Toulouse-Lautrec, but would also become a significant part of his legacy. Commissioned to create a series of posters, his designs remain some of the most iconic imagery of the elegance, color, debauchery, and decadence of the time.

Influenced by the world around him, Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster work was appropriately provocative and decadent. Thanks to a relaxation of French publishing laws at the time, the streets of Paris and the women who walked them provided a blank canvas for his creativity. His signature crachis, or spatter method of splattering ink onto a lithographic stone was used in his poster designs for the Moulin Rouge and other salons. Equally influenced by 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, he produced posters with simplified forms, flattened perspectives and bold colours that featured Moulin Rouge dancers, la Goulue and Jane Avril (above).

The salons of Paris provided great inspiration and most notably Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette created a thrilling scandal at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition. In spite of the backlash, it proved hugely influential, with many artists inspired to paint the same location in tribute. Picasso painted his version on his very first day in Montmartre, in his typically modern style, blurring the faces of dancers to convey movement.

Anyone whose last words were, “drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can’t drink anymore” embodies a bohemian spirit. And Pablo Picasso certainly did that. His true bohemian life began in 1900 in Montmartre in Paris where he indulged in absinthe and met his muse Fernande Olivier with whom he frequently took opium, before leaving her after achieving artistic success.

Not all artists of the day were able to ride the bohemian wave of excess and debauchery towards a successful artistic career though. Inevitably, the lifestyle claimed a number of artists, including the brilliant and prolific painter, Amedeo Modigliani, who was the model bohemian that lived a life of extraordinary tragedy. Striving to separate himself from political and cultural institutions of bourgeois society, he frequented the cafes of Montmartre cafes, sought pleasure and self-expression through sex, drugs, alcohol, and art. It was a rock n roll story ahead of its time and he died at 35 from tubercular meningitis. He was discovered in his final hours being nursed by his preganant mistress. Two days after his death, she jumped to her death from a fifth-floor window.

Trans-Atlantic Bohemians

Although rooted in Paris, the ideals of the bohemian lifestyle were easily transferred worldwide, shaping and inspiring artistic movements of the 20th century. Across the Atlantic, poets and writers including Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and Paul Bowles defined their own brand of bohemianism. Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel provided the hub for American bohemianism, and the playwright Arthur Miller described the essence of the hotel as a place where “there are no vacuum cleaners, no rules, and shame”.

A Manhattan beer cellar in the 1850s was central to American bohemianism, with attendees including Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. But, Bohemianism in the US was born in Charleston, South Carolina, where Ada Clare (the Queen of Bohemia) hosted a weekly literary salon, and Edward Howland financed the bohemians’ literary weekly, the New York Saturday Press. It also provided the setting for Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843), which influenced Fitz-James O’Brien’s representation of American bohemianism in The Bohemian (1855).

Howland and Clare were essential to bohemianism thriving in the States through the periodical and the salons the artists frequented. Cotton plantations allowed Howland and Clare to fund these institutions, with Poe at the imaginative center of American bohemia. US bohemianism emerged as a complex network of people, money, and ideas circulating from the North to the South, to New York, and Paris.

Birth of Bohemian Culture: Edgar Degas – Absinthe.

Edgar Degas – Absinthe. Public Domain Image.

What Followed

By the outbreak of World War I, the Bohemian dream was over. The 1920s brought with it a new outlook and many Bohemian artists were absorbed into the avant-garde and vanguard movements that followed. Picasso and Modigliani continued the legacy of the bohemians in typically modern style and they were able to do this thanks to the Bohemian’s legacy as the first embodiment of the modern artist. Bohemians identified their art with their life and transformation of artistic practice dramatized the personal relationship with society, but at times this was at personal cost due to the excess of their lifestyle and its contradictions.

Birth of Bohemian Culture: Georges Seurat - La rade de Grandcamp.

Georges Seurat – La rade de Grandcamp. Sold for $34,062,500 via Christie’s (May 2018)

Railing against bourgeois values and life in favor of a hedonistic society focused on creative expression, love for the arts, and the pursuit of pleasure and sexual freedom, Bohemians who found fame would contradict this rejection of the mainstream as their avant-garde art crossed into the mainstream and became a product of capitalist modernity and a cultural commodity. Perhaps the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam stands as a temple to this. Initially driven by a rejection of existing society the line between conformity and rebellion was blurred as Bohemians found a way to co-exist with capitalism thrust upon their success.

The artistic legacy of Bohemians is much clearer. The vivid and colorful world of Montmartre at the beginning of the 20thcentury brought about the birth of Modernist Art in a revolution of artistic expression that saw young artists of unencumbered potential ensconce themselves in Paris’s famous windmill-topped district, from Matisse, to Derain, Braque, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Modigliani. Documented in the studios, salons, and cafés of Montmartre, the artists lived the lifestyle of pure pleasure in a cocktail of drunkenness and inspiration that would usher in one of the key moments in the history of Modern Art.


Sources: TheCultureTrip.com | WideWalls.ch – Did Impressionist Painters Inspire the Bohemian Lifestyle? | WideWalls.ch – Famous Artists of the 20th Century Who Knew How to Live | JStor – The Southern Origins of Bohemian New York | BBC.co.uk – What is Bohemian? | Britannica.com | ContributorMagazne.com | DesignWeek.co.uk | Thoughtco.com | IrishTimes.com | ReModernReview.Wordpress.com