Whistler's Caprice In Purple And Gold

What is a Bohemian?

As stated on the home page, the literal definition and original meaning of the term "Bohemian," is a native or inhabitant of the region or former province of  what is now western Czechoslovakia.

However, the term as it applies to the arts is a timeless concept that knows no geogrpahic boundaries. In this context, Bohemia is not a place on a map but any community of people whose paramount interest is literary or artistic in nature. Consequently, due to this interest, the lifestyle of the Bohemian tends to differ dramatically from what might be considered to be established norms.

In fact, Bohemia can be pinpointed on the abstract map. According to Alphone de Calonne in his 1852 work, Voyage au pays de Boheme, "The land of Bohemia is a sad country, bounded on the North by need, on the South by poverty, on the East by illusion, and on the West by the hospital. It is irrigated by two inexhaustible streams: imprudence and shame."

If this is the location, then what of its inhabitants? In 1904 George Sterling, the San Francisco romantic poet defined a Bohemian as someone with a "devotion to one or more of the Seven Arts... and who lives in poverty." He went on to state that "other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life, as unconventional...."

The following question has been asked to determine whether one is a Bohemian: "You have enough money to buy either art supplies or a meal, but not enough money to buy both. Which would you buy?" If you chose art supplies, you qualify as a Bohemian.

There has been an historical fascination with the Bohemian lifestlye. The effort to locate Bohemia on the map and to define the attributes of Bohemians has been ongoing since Shakespeare's time.

The following quotations shed some light on the characteristics of a Bohemian:

A lady named Ada Clare, known to New York as the Queen of Bohemia, had stated in 1860: "The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts, and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs; he steps over them with an easy, graceful, joyous unconnsciousness, guided by the principles of good taste and feeling. Above all others, essentially, the Bohemian must not be narrow minded; if he be, he is degraded back to the position of near worlding." - from The Improper Bohemians, Churchill, Allen. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1959, p. 25.

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In 1904 George Sterling, the San Francisco romantic poet...added his definition: "Any good mixer of convivial habits considers he has a right to be called Bohemian. But this is not a valid claim. There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addition to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. Other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life, as unconventional..." - from The Improper Bohemians, Churchill, Allen. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1959, p. 25-26.

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...An unnamed British observer who stated "Bohemianism is understood to mean a gay disorderliness of life, cheerful bad manners, and no fixed hours or sexual standards." - from The Improper Bohemians, Churchill, Allen. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1959, p. 26.

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"While the Bohemian, strictly speaking, is a native of Bohemia, a gipsy who leads a vagabond and independent life, Bohemians have come to include all those artists and musicians, actors and poets, of every degree, who choose to lead a life outside society." - from The Bohemians, Richarson, Joanna. London: Macmillan, 1969, p 11.

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"They had all in a sense, been Bohemian; they had maintained the right of the poet and the man of letters to escape the social system, to follow a personnal moral code, to create his own environment, and develop his originality. They had asserted the right of man to live as he chose..." - from The Bohemians, Richarson, Joanna. London: Macmillan, 1969, p 21.

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"The Bohemians of Murger think of the Bohemian life as something transient, something which accompanies youth and must pass inevitably..." - from Scenes de la vie de la Boheme, Introduction, Lewis, D.B.Wyndham. Salt Lake City: Perigrine Smith Books, p. xx.

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"’By Bohemians,’ a stage figure of the 1840s declared, ‘I understand that class of individuals whose existence is a problem, social condition a myth, fortune an enigma, who have no stable residence, no recognized retreat, who are located nowhere and whom one encounters everywhere! who have no single occupation and who exercise fifty professions; of whom most get up in the morning wothout knowing where they will dine in the evening; rich today, famished tomorrow, ready to live honestly if they can and someother way if they can’t.’" - from Bohemian Paris, Seigel, Jerrold. New York: Viking, 1986.

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"Murger’s disclaimer reminds us that the term bohemien had been part of the vocabulary that described the Paris underworld for centuries. Murger and his friends were always concerned to distinguish their form of deviance and social descent from this other one." - from Bohemian Paris, Seigel, Jerrold. New York: Viking, 1986. p. 125.

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"They, too, [including Murger] thought of Bohemian existence as a temporary necessity imposed on young artists and writers, a form of life they would be only too willing to give up once their careers were launched." - from Bohemian Paris, Seigel, Jerrold. New York: Viking, 1986. p. 135.

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"Guillemot made clear that Bohemia - defined in his way [as ‘all those whose existence is a problem, all those who live by expedients’] - had no essential tie with the condition of poverty that a Murger or a Privat had assumed was natural to it. There were Bohemians at every social level... whoever built his or her existence on a show of wealth, position, knowledge, or talent that was in fact the product or pretence or illusion was a Bohemian." - from Bohemian Paris, Seigel, Jerrold. New York: Viking, 1986. p. 145.

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"Earlier writers had certainly been aware that adolescent rebellion and withdrawal were one compound in the element of Bohemian life, but [Georges] Jenneret may have been the first to isolate it." - from Bohemian Paris, Seigel, Jerrold. New York: Viking, 1986. p. 270.

"In October 1859, George William Curtis, editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine attempted to define for his readers the concept of of Bohemia. Alluding to both the freedom that Bohemia embodied and anxiety about the threat it posed to bourgeois life, he pronounced that 'Bohemia is the realm of vagabondage. . . a fairy land upon the hard earth. . . Hereabouts you may find it in painters' studios, and in the rooms of authors... Its denizens are clad loosely  — seedily, in the vulgate  — and they are shaggy as to the head, with abounding hair. Whatever is not 'respectable' they are." - from A Forgotten Daughter of Bohemia: Gertrude Christian Fosdick's Out of Bohemia and the Artists' Novel of the 1890s, Donna Campbell, Legacy; 2008; 25;  p. 275

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THERE was a good deal of talk in the newspapers and magazines of last month, again and again, about this "Bohemianism," and the "Bohemians" in our Village. Who is it you call a "bohemian"? The public in general seems to think that this term applies to every man who wears long hair, a flying black necktie, indulges heavily in the absorption of alcoholic liquids, smokes cigarettes, has rather lax views about the relations between men and women, and then, in his leisure hours, he perhaps paints or writes poetry. Or they think of women with short hair that wear some of those Roman striped silk garments that Martine & Martine manufacture in Switzerland and Wanamaker sells in his basement; that smoke cigarettes, believe nolens volens in free love, talk very cleverly about things usually out of the scope of a woman's conversation, and then — they, too — paint or write some poetry.

I wonder if any one knows where the word "bohemian" originated? And why it is almost always closely linked with the Latin Quartiers of Paris (not only in the famous novel of Henri Murger)? If fire had not destroyed my Garret I could now refer to my files about the origin of the word "bohemian" and could give you not only the facts, but the names and dates correctly. If I had time, I could take a trip to the Public Library and find it there. But I have neither of them, and so I leave it to you, if you are sufficiently interested, to look it up.

The first University of the world was founded in 1346 in Paris, and now I miss the name of that Bohemian King who played an important part at the Court of Paris at that time as heir apparent. This University in Paris was everything but an educational institution of the conception of our own days. Troubadours, scientists, "wayfaring students," as they were called, had found here a thriving abode, where royal grants for them provided generously for their daily needs and an assembly of fellow-seekers after the Truth and the ideal permitted them an exchange of ideas and of values which was universal. Their language was the classic, and less classic Latin. The part of the city which they chose for their habitation was soon called by the other population of Paris, the Latin Quarters. The great amount of Bohemians which the Bohemian Prince through his generosity invited to make pilgrimage to this new Dorado of everybody "learned," had settled again as a little community inside of the Latin Quartiers. They all were men of the world. They all had traveled from the farthest South to the extremist North of Europe. Their habits of living were marked by their Slavonic temperament, their hot blood and their melancholy and sentimentality, which did not permit an early parting whenever they had gathered for learned discussions . . . and they were not believers of temperance restrictions of any kind.

To lead "the bohemian life in the Latin Quartiers" soon became an expression all over Europe, just as much misunderstood and misapplied in the days of yore as it is today.

It is not what we do, but what we are. A "bohemian" is but does not act, in order to qualify as such. - from Volume 2, Number 10 of  Bruno's Weekly, March 4, 1916

"Members of the generation that came of age after World War II, who, supposedly as a result of disillusionment stemming from the Cold War, espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions." - Jack Kerouac's 1960 definition written in respose to a request from the editors of the Random House Dictionary

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Last Updated: 05/22/2013