Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Bohemian Housing

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"The indiscretion of partition walls allowed all the secrets of Bohemian family life to transpire, and initiated them, in spite of themselves, to all its mysteries" (186). (Scenes de la Vie)

Because of their poverty, Bohemian students and painters usually lived in apartments in the top floors of buildings. The first floors usually housed bourgeois families who rented out their attics as lodgings. The higher the floor, the less expensive the rent. When Murger described his time as a bohemian, he wrote that he lived on the sixth floor "because there was no seventh;" the narrator in George Sand's Horace said there were "ninety-two stairs that separated our apartment from the ground" (70). Often the contrast between the lifestyle of those at the top and bottom floors would be remarkable.

The illustration at right demonstrates this. The fashionable lady and gentlemen relax in their chandeliered parlor, seemingly oblivious to the merrily dancing artists in their attic. But the artists are not the only ones in the attic - and not everyone can maintain optimism and insouciance in the face of poverty, as shown by the weeping mother on the other side of the wall.

 

(Click on the image on the right to see a close up view of the typical lodgings of a bohemian artist)

 

Parisian House, about 1850. (Miller 46)

Furnishings for the lodgings, as shown in the quote below from Champfleury, a friend of Murger, were eclectic:

"We rented a small apartment in the Rue Vaugirand, which cost us three hundred francs a year. You brought in six plates, a Shakespeare, the works of Victor Hugo, a bureau of incalculable age, and a Phrygian cap. By a strange chance I was the owner of two mattresses, a bedstead, one hundred and eighty volumes, two small chairs, a table, and a human skull. We seldom went out, we smoked continually, and worked a great deal."

Some furnished their apartments with antiques, which were not yet in fashion for the bourgeois.

The poorest of the Bohemians, especially those who were not supported by families at home, had to make do with far less comfortable accomodations. Before his success in bringing Trilby to the stage, Svengali, the antagonist in George du Maurier's novel Trilby, "occupied a roomy dilapidated garret, au sixieme, in the Rue Tire-Laird, with a truckle-bed and a pianoforte for furniture, and very little else" (39).

Many artists did use their lodgings as studios. Murger was inspired by the flowerpots on his windowsill; many visual artists painted in their rooms. Arsene Houssaye, a youth who had come to the city seeking "excitement and literary fortune" rented a suite of rooms with three other young men. Together, the four, like the characters in Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, created an artistic environment where everyone could inspire each other:

"One wrote by the corner of the fire, another rhymed in a hammock; Theo, all the while stroking cats, calligraphed admirable chapters, lying on his stomach; Gerard, always inscrutable, came and went with the vague anxiety of a seeker who doesn't find."