Bohemianism and Counter-Culture


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"For five or six years Marcel had worked at the famous painting which (he said) represented the Passage of the Red Sea; and for five or six years, this master-piece of color had been obstinately refused by the jury. In fact, by dint of going and returning so many times from the artist's study to the Exhibition and from the Exhibition to his study, the picture knew the road to the Louvre so well enough to have gone thither of itself, if it had been put on wheels" (195).

The visual arts enjoyed a rise in popularity and respect after the French Revolution, however, perceptions of the people who created the works of art were often divergent. Because of the stance that most Bohemians took, that they were outside of the Bourgeois culture, they often were not accorded the same amount of respect as a wealthy business man might be. As always, both art and artists, were in the eye of the beholder.

Gustave Courbet was a sucessful painter, and the imagery of this painting, The Painter's Studio: a Real Allegory shows that. He is someone very much within the French artistic community and therefore painted an art studio in a postive light, as an allegory.

   Gustave Courbet
 Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), a friend of Henry Murger, painted The Painter's Studio; a Real Allegory in 1855. In the center of the canvas, the well-dressed artist creates a beautiful landscape, surrounded by a beautiful (and naked) woman, a small awe-struck boy, and a host of other people, including an apparently wealthy couple. Other people, presumably other artists, are also in the studio, as well as works of art in progress (such as a statue of the crucifixion) and signs of other kinds of art, such as a guitar and books. In spite of this almost chaotic scene, the room is full of golden light and the painter seems to be much appreciated.

Thakeray described the lives of Bohemian artists in his Paris Sketch Book, published in 1840. This volume was created for a British audience, and its aim was to lampoon the whole of French culture. Thackeray devotes a section of the book to discussing young artists. The sketch below is just such a lampoon. Each artist, dressed in styles that differ greatly from those of the typical Bourgeois of the day, painstakingly paints the model who poses in the corner. Note the beards and long hair which really flew in the face of the fashion of the day.

 William Thackeray  
 An excerpt from Thackeray's Paris Sketch Book:  He comes to Paris, probably at sixteen, from his province; his parents settle forty pounds a year on him, and pay his master; he establishes himself in the Pays Latin, or in the new quarter of Notre Dame de Lorette (which is quite peopled with painters); he arrives at his atelier at a tolerably early hour, and labors among a score of companions as merry and poor as himself. Each gentleman has his favorite tobacco-pipe; and the pictures are painted in the midst of a cloud of smoke, and a din of puns and choice French slang, and a roar of choruses, of which no one can form an idea who has not been present at such an assembly.


The life of the young artist here is the easiest, merriest, dirtiest existence possible.

 - William Makepeace Thackeray