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:
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.
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."
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.
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,
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.
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,
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)
image appeared in the illustrated version of Les
Year 1817" Fantine, Book III, chap. 1
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.
depicts Fantine and her four friends, as well as the four
young students with whom they were romantically attached.
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.
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.
courtesy of metopera.org Photo
by Winnie Klotz, from the 2000-2001 production of La
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)
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."
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