Bohemianism and Counter-Culture



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La Boheme
London 1900's
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Grisettes were in many ways female bohemians. They were integral and prominent participants in bohemian society; they fit perfectly into the lifestyle and spirit of bohemia and were also necessary to its survival. This is how Grisettes both embodied the essence of bohemia and supported bohemia:

  • Characteristics of a grisette's life paralleled that of a bohemian in several ways. In addition, representations of Grisettes in popular literature established them as figures of subversion to mainstream Bourgeoisie values.
  • Grisettes provided romance, inspiration, and an audience for bohemians.


Image courtesy of

"The grisette despises conventional, boring, foolish men, however rich they might be. She cares more about looks and personality than money, although she likes spending money if she can. And even if she leaves bohemia for bourgeois men, she is portrayed as being unhappy and longing for bohemian life; in spirit she never breaks from bohemia. She remains committed to her bohemian lovers, and the bourgeois husband or lover can never understand her completely, because her heart remains with her only true love, the bohemian." (Manchin, 2000)

This image shows Shunard, from Puccini's La Boheme with a grisette. The woman represents the grisette because she is happy with her bohemian companion. From her proud bearing and the spatial proximity to her male companion, it is clear that these two are equals. Thus, she must be happy with the freedom of her life within bohemia.


Life: The word "grisette" refers to a cheap dress made of gray fabric, and later came to signify those young, lower class women who wore it. During the 19th century, the term came to embody not only the social status of the grisette, but also a certain archetypal character, namely a young, pretty, independent and flirtatious working woman. (Manchin, 2000)

Grisettes were young, working class women, usually in their twenties, who left their home and families in the countryside to find work in Paris. Grisettes were usually seamstresses; during the 19th century, cloth merchants would employ the labor of people in the country and city garrets. Much of Paris's manufactured products required skill and precision, and women provided much of this type of labor. Grisettes lived on their own, supporting themselves, and sometimes their families with their work.

Parallels with Bohemia: In the 19th century, grisette became associated with the Latin Quarter and thus with bohemia. The housing there was cheap, and they found that they fit in well with the young men of this social and cultural group. Grisettes and bohemians were both urban figures, lacking the support of their families as well as supervision. (Manchin, 2000) They both represented a sort of middle ground between the upper and lower classes. For both, bohemia was a transitory phase of life. For grisettes in particular, the ultimate goal was to find a permanent place in society and to achieve status and security; namely, to find an upper or middle class husband. (Manchin, 2000) As Houssaye observed, "soon they will be the Fifth Estate." (Knepler, 38) Failure to achieve some sort of security often resulted in prostitution or death. (Manchin, 2000)


Representations: A whole mythology of grisettes has developed through accounts and descriptions by such authors as Hugo, Murger, and others. They have tended to portray the grisette as young, pretty, and independent. She lives her life and carries out her relationships on her own terms, with her own agenda. She has no concern for formalities, customs or norms. (Manchin, 2000) She moves from lover to lover at whim, commands respect from her lovers, and becomes an equal partner with her male relations. In short, she has control over her romantic life. (Manchin, 2000) This is a stark contrast to the normal bourgeois ideals of womanhood. The daughters of the bourgeoisie were restricted, taught respectability, and spent their time waiting for suitors. (Seigel, 40)


This image appeared in the illustrated version of Les Miserables, 1862.

"The Year 1817" Fantine, Book III, chap. 1


Hugo's representation of Fantine and her friends embody the grisette archetype. They are young, pretty women, all workers, all unmarried and unattached and living independently. They live carefree lives and become involved in love affairs with young students; they spend their days entertaining themselves, going on picnics, eating in restaurants, etc.

This image depicts Fantine and her four friends, as well as the four young students with whom they were romantically attached. The romantic encounters in this image are highly different from those of young bourgeoisie couples. The encounters in this image are very informal; a contrast to the rigid formality of bourgeois courtship. For example, a young bourgeoisie couple would be reserved, and there would be no physical contact. The young people in this scene have relaxed and playful postures, indicating informality. There is also significant physical contact; the youth helping the grisette into the boat has his arm around her in a seemingly suggestive manner. The couple in the upper right are leaning quite close together. This open display of sexuality was common to bohemians and grisettes.

This image shows one of Murger's characters, Musetta, adapted for Puccini's opera, La Boheme. Musetta is an example of a grisette, and from this picture, her fierce independence, flirtatious nature, and overt sexuality are evident. Musetta, both in Murger's Scenes de La Vie de Boheme and Puccini's opera, Musetta is a fickle character, leaving and taking lovers at her whim.

Image courtesy of Photo by Winnie Klotz, from the 2000-2001 production of La Boheme.


Supporting Bohemia: Author Joel Seigel describes how grisettes were figures of "romantic fantasy" for the men of bohemia. They were young, available, unfettered by "bourgeois morality"; as mistresses they satisfied the physical needs of the pleasure seeking bohemians. (Seigel, 40)

Grisettes also provided artistic inspiration; for example, one grisette named Jenny, from Janin's "La Grisette," modeled for artists. However, she only offered her services to one she considered to be a true genius. (Manchin, 2000) Grisettes were often portrayed as having good taste in art; they could thus support artists by contributing their opinions and perspectives. Grisettes provided literary inspiration; an example appears in the memoirs of Arsene Houssaye. He describes how one of his friends used his love Cydalise as his subject: "I can point to many of Theo's poems that date from that love; while he produced them under the spell of her eyes, she, too, learned to make songs of love." (Knepler, 41)

Grisettes provided a valuable audience for bohemians; they accompanied them to the cafes, joined their conversations, listened to poems and examined artwork inspired by and completed for them. By embodying and supporting bohemia, grisettes fortified and justified the rejection of the bourgeois that defined this counterculture.