Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Geographic Location

Main Page

















 View of the Seine by George du Maurier from Trilby

"We will add that Bohemia only exists and is only possible in Paris"

--Henry Murger, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, Introduction, xxxvi

Bohemianism in the mid-1800s was concentrated in the Latin Quarter, an area on the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris, so named because Latin was taught at the Sorbonne, a university in the area. Although later, around the turn of the century, many artists would leave the Left Bank for Montmartre, even today the Latin Quarter is considered an area for students and young artists.

Many writers who described Bohemia, including Henry Murger and Victor Hugo, insisted that its Parisian setting was integral to its existance. When describing the Societe de l'ABC, Hugo wrote, "these Parisians were, one from Toulouse, another from Limoges, the third from Cahors, and the fourth from Montauban; but they were students, and to say student is to say Parisian; to study in Paris is to be born in Paris" (104). Coming of age in the city made every student and every artist a citizen of the capital.

The awe that many people felt at coming to Paris for the first time is well expressed by this passage from George du Maurier's novel Trilby. The main character, Little Billee, is surveying the view from his window.

"Indeed, the top of nearly all Paris lay before him, with a little stretch of the imagination on his part; and he gazed with a sense of novelty, an interest and a pleasure for which he could not have found any expression in mere language. Paris! Paris!! Paris!!! The very name had always been one to conjure with ... And here was the thing at last, and he, he himself, ipsissimus, in the very heart of it, to live there and learn there as long as he liked, and make himself the great artist he longed to be" (8).

Ironically, though Murger and Hugo specified that the lifestyle of artist and student was unique to Paris, Bohemia ceased to exist in Paris after the first world war. But contrary to their expectations, the spirit of Bohemia was able to spread around the world, to other nations and speakers of other languages.