The Bohemian Lifestyle at its beginnings

Bohemian Lifestyle

The history fascinates me. My curiosity is taking me back at the Bohemian lifestyle at its beginnings . It’s not much, something like 200 years, but I am aware that there is more than enough to discover.

As a reminder, a ”bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving music, artistic, or literary pursuits.In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds.

Every era has it’s own counter-culture movement. In Paris after the French revolution, that movement was the Bohemian one, and it was an important for the changes over time.

The Bohemian lifestyle at it’s beginnings

22 November 1849. The first premiere of La Vie de Bohème
22 November 1849. The first premiere of La Vie de Bohème

The first name connected to the Bohemian lifestyle  at first is Henry Murger. He wrote the book that defines Bohemianism. He spend his youth living with friends in extreme poverty in an attic apartment.This group of friends called themselves the Water Drinkers. The water was the only drink they could afford. Henry wrote short stories of their lives called “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme”. This stories are the basis of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, created in 1845. Funny fact is that Henry left the kind of life Bohemians had, for the bourgeois stability and wealth. Bohemians were rather poor and very different from the majority.

The Bohemians wore flamboyant clothes, and they had irrelevant moods. They spoke clever and with a funny remarks. They didn’t have any furniture in their home, but instead they had a furniture drown on canvas. Their love relationships were passionate for a few weeks, and than they were replaced by others. There were many morals the Bohemians seem to stand for, as was “Art before all”.

I’ve mentioned before that Bohemians got their name from the gypsies that came from The Kingdom Of Bohemia. But this Bohemians had nothing to do with all the robbers and assassins of the gypsies. They had nothing to do with the “gypsies who were always ready to turn their hands to anything except good.” But this groups of people also shared some characteristics. They had a vagabond lifestyle, they were happy in their poverty, there was a disregard of money for the pursuit of music, color and relationships. Their priorities were different from the rest of the society, but they inspired disdain and envy.

Terrace of a Cafe on Montmartre painted in October 1886 by Van Gogh. Typicl Bohemian cafe.
Terrace of a Cafe on Montmartre painted in October 1886 by Van Gogh. Typicl Bohemian cafe.

By the middle of the 19th century, some French authors had already used the word bohemian in a very differen sense. Among them were George Sand and Honore de Balzac. But not until Murger’s play “La Vie de Boheme” everyone came to understand the meaning of the word.

The first generation of Bohemians were young people on their own in Paris, trying that independent artistic life. Bohemianism was like an adolescence period, before they returned to their homes and bourgeois careers.


Where did the Bohemians meet?

The Bohemians were meeting in different cafes. Over there they used to explore and share ideas, they gathered to watch the bourgeois, and they were forming the Bohemian identity. 

Henry Murger and his friends used to gather in Cafe Momus. This cafe was located on the Right Bank near the church Saint Germaine l’Auxerrois. It was a popular meeting place for Bohemians, which was the reason for it mention in Puccini’s opera La Boheme. 

Café Momus. Right Bank, Paris.
Café Momus. Right Bank, Paris.

Even if you mentioned Bohemians to a French person at that period, they always thought of the Water Drinker gathered in different cafes, like Chez Dinchau and Brasserie des Martyrs. A noisy smoke-filled cafes, where writers and painters like Murger, Baudelaire and Courbet used to meet. This men represented three styles of Bohemian life.

How did the Bohemians live?

It is well known that they rejected the bourgeois values. This means that they rejected any private property, and they were surviving on minimal material wealth. All of the strict moral values were rejected, and they were living carefree with open sexual freedom, and a lot of alcohol and drugs. The Bohemians lived only for art which was heir passion.

Most of them lived and worked on the streets, cafes, libraries and many other public areas in Paris. Obviously thy didn’t have much belongings.  Regarding their behavior they didn’t have any need of social acceptance.

Tip: If you really want to understand the life in Paris at this period,read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. I admire this book. For me this is a masterpiece explaining many details going on in the French society.

By the end of the 19th century, the Bohemian movement was coming to an end, but it officially ended with the beginning of the WWII. In the last century there were some different kinds of Bohemian movements, take the hippy movement of the 1960, and it’s nothing else but truth that it’s inspiration comes from the Parisian “vie Boheme”


I really hope you enjoyed this post. I realized there is a lot to write and explain. Many things are clear now. The Bohemian lifestyle at its begining doesn’t seem very different from the one many people have it today. Read more about The Bohemian Style.