The Poor Poet (1839), a painting by Carl Spitzweg.
Look where this sufferer from artistism, this bourgeoisophobe, this starving artist, this beautiful loser, this bohemian, this tortured artist, this seeker of artistic inspiration, this man afraid of writer’s block, look at where this poor soul ends up: in a garret with a leaking roof.
How very romantic, how utterly romantic is this notion of the Artist, the creative genius touched by divine inspiration.
A Paris street – set design for Act II of Puccini’s La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein.
One of the funniest episodes in the historiography of bohemianism is the first appearance of the term bohemian in relation to artistic endeavor. The year is 1834 and Félix Pyat, a French journalist of communard persuasion, publishes a well-written article called “Les Artistes” in which he derogatorily describes wannabe artists as “alien and bizarre … outside the law, beyond the reaches of society … they are the Bohemians of today” (tr. Levi Asher).
Félix Pyat connects ‘one who lives like a Bohemian’, meaning like a vagabond, with artists and he calls the latter “les Bohémiens d’aujourd’hui” (the Bohemians of today).
The funniest bit is when he condemns artistry itself, comparing it to a disease which he calls “artistism”:
- “That which should be the exception of privileged natures has become a general rule; what am I saying, a fashion, a rage, a furor, a contagious, epidemic, endemic malady, a scourge worse than cholera, a veritable plague from the Orient, artistism.” (tr. Geerinck, Daniel Cottom, 2013)
The term Bohemianism, meant as a slur by Pyat, was later reappropriated by the artistic community.
The illustration above by Adolfo Hohenstein is extremely picturesque and immediately recognizable as a French or Parisian street.