Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis

A production in Beijing of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, 1986

In Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), a bookseller rescues from the Seine an uncivilized free spirit named Boudu, who proceeds to call down chaos upon the bookseller’s tidy existence. Boudu, large, hairy, and inarticulate, is a clochard—a word, derived from cloche (bell), signifying a bum or hobo. There are various theories about its etymology: that it alludes to the bell announcing the end of marketplace hours, when scavengers were free to collect unsold produce; or to when beggars rang bells to accompany their pleas; or to when the post of bell-ringer at churches was given to the neediest member of the congregation. The writer Jean-Paul Clébert supposed that the cloche is the sky, and all who sleep under it are its children.

A North African immigrant who became a clochard explained:

It’s easy to become a clochard in Paris. One day you put on a jacket and you say, that’s my shirt, and then you put on another jacket and this time you say, that’s my jacket, and then you slip on a third—my overcoat. After that you go sit on the quais and you meet other guys like you, also clochards, and with them you smoke some butts and you drink some liters. At night you sleep under the bridges or on top of the sand heaps. When winter comes the clochards die like flies, because it’s cold and they don’t have on enough jackets, but that’s how it goes. In spring others will come and the cycle will start all over again.

The clochard drinks and sleeps, and scrounges or begs or steals or sells junk at the flea market or sometimes takes on labor at Les Halles or on the docks. There were old and young clochards, mostly men, some women, quite a few couples. Some were lifers, at it since they were kids. Others had had previous lives, real or imagined. This one had been a professor of philosophy, that one was retired from the Bibliothèque Nationale, another had spent forty years in the Bat’ d’Af—the Bataillons d’Afrique, the disciplinary corps—and had the tattoos to prove it.

The occasional clochard could become a character, appreciated by a wider audience. One of these was André-Joseph Salis, known as Bibi-la-Purée (purée signifies, basically, “trouble”), an occasional porter, shoeshiner, artist’s model, go-between, beggar, thief, and police informer, who served as boon companion to Paul Verlaine and was described as his secretary, his duties consisting chiefly of getting the poet home safely when he was blind drunk, which was often. Known for wearing unpredictable assortments of random clothes, Bibi was painted by Picasso, Théophile Steinlen, and Jacques Villon. After Verlaine’s death in 1896, he made a living selling forged autographs and random found objects as having belonged to the poet; apparently he sold at least ten different walking sticks—“with a heavy heart”—as Verlaine’s.

But then Verlaine, for all that he was the Prince of Poets (elected by his peers in 1894), edged awfully near the status of clochard himself, shuttling from rat hole to hospital, lying senseless on café banquettes or in doorways, saved from incarceration or death only by his friends and his prestige (allegedly, some police commissioner decreed that he was never to be arrested). In more than just his case, the distance between bohemia and the cloche could often seem perilously close. The name “Bohemia,” derived from the province that was believed to be the Eastern European way station of the Roma, referred to people “who lead a life without rules,” long before it enjoyed any artistic connotations. An accounting of its original compass was provided by Karl Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire:

Vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, macquereaus [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème.

Most of us know about the origins of bohemia, directly or indirectly, from Henri Murger, whose episodic semi-novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème was published serially in the late 1840s. In 1848, that year of upheaval, Murger’s tales of the nobility of art spiritually triumphing over disease, poverty, and neglect must have struck a chord with people who needed an escapist fantasy version of their troubles. A working-class belletrist with no money and many afflictions—purpura gave him a “macabre” complexion, his eyes watered incessantly—Murger wrote stories about idealized versions of his friends. The details of their setting and plot have been worn transparent from passing through so many hands over the years (Puccini’s opera as well as a score of film adaptations): the quest for inspiration, the pawning of possessions, the commodity value of the black frock coat, the knell that sounds as a slight tubercular cough.


His book has both endured and faded because of its fervent, wholehearted, mulishly determined sentimentality. He branded bohemia, gave it an origin myth, tried to keep it free from radicalism and crime, made it into a sort of secular religion, all noble suffering and unjust persecution. He wrote that it was “bordered on the north by hope, work, and gaiety, on the south by necessity and courage, on the west and east by slander and the hospital.” Needless to say, he had no influence of any sort on the conduct of actual bohemians.

Artistic bohemia had already been in effect for a generation by that time. Its earliest manifestation was hatched around 1818 by the students of Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, a painter who lived and worked in a building called Le Childebert, on the street of that name (now Rue Bonaparte, the house razed long ago). His students moved into the building, a slum with crumbling stairs, broken windows, and sweating walls, and soon formed one of those tight, shifting, excitable, fickle, impatient, untidy coagulations of which students are uniquely capable. They seem to have been the first vanguard of Romanticism, painting landscapes directly from nature rather than from idealized classical models, accused by critics of waging “a crusade against beauty.”

They also launched, perpetrated, and squelched dozens of fads, in a way that appears to have had few precedents. There was first a medieval fad, countering the prevailing obsession with Greece and Rome, which began with them reading cheap romances and soon saw them wearing satin jerkins and gigot sleeves, carrying around lyres and short swords, and speaking in affected medievalese. They even changed their names: every Jean became a Jehan, every Pierre a Petrus, every Louis a Loÿs. Then they were onto the Scots (via Sir Walter Scott), the modern Greeks (thanks to Byron), the Turks (by way of Lamartine’s Méditations and Hugo’s Orientales). They alternately grew their hair to their shoulders, after the English Cavaliers, and shaved it down to a stubble, after the Roundheads. At the theater they made a great show of yawning at tragedies and laughing at melodramas. “A great anxiety haunted them: everything had to be new at all costs.”

By 1830, they had split into two camps: the Bouzingos and the Jeunes-France. The former had moved through the centuries and arrived at the Revolution of 1789: they styled their hair after Robespierre, wore waistcoats like Marat’s, boiled-leather or red felt hats, and carried cudgels. The Jeunes-France hit on the formula that Murger eventually made famous: they were dreamy, blasé, brooding, nursing vague longings and inconsolable regrets, cultivating stark white complexions, suggesting they were consumptive, turning to assorted religious affectations. The Bouzingos then dropped the costume drama in favor of materialism and modernity: now they were all about beauty and youth, drinking and dancing all night and sleeping all day.

There were other camps, too: the Pur-Sangs, the Infatigables, the Badouillards. All of them faded away around 1838, leaving only a joint hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom they called “grocers.” The bourgeoisie, however, converted those fads into consumable objects, which were still turning up at flea markets a century and a half later:

Clocks in the shape of cathedrals, gothic bindings, letter-openers in the form of daggers, inkwells and night-lights and innumerable other objects made to look like dungeons or medieval castles with drawbridges, posterns, brattices, machicolations, watchtowers, allures…

Those cliques included former members of the cabal called the Petit-Cénacle, who had taken part in the planned set-to that accompanied the premiere of Victor Hugo’s Hernani in 1830 (a battle that pitted the emerging Romantics against the entrenched Classicists): Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Petrus Borel, Aloysius Bertrand, Jehan du Seigneur (those three had respectively been christened Pierre, Louis, and Jean), Augustus MacKeat (Auguste Macquet), Philothée O’Neddy (Théophile Dondey). On occasion they drank wine from human skulls, sometimes dispensed with clothing, gave recitals on musical instruments they did not know how to play. Nerval pitched a tent in his room, or slept on the floor next to a carved Renaissance bed he claimed to be in thrall to. Famously, he had a pet lobster named Thibault, rescued from a fishmonger’s, whom he, at least once, walked on a leash. Most of them went on to respectable careers, although in 1855 Nerval was found hanged with the belt of an apron from the grille of a cabinetmaker’s stall, wearing a hat, two shirts, two vests, and no coat, and with a tetragrammaton drawn in ink on the left side of his chest.


Murger once told Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont, “Vous n’êtes pas un bohème, mais la bohème”—he was bohemia itself. Privat was born in Sainte-Rose, Guadeloupe, in 1815, the son of a freewoman of color and an unknown father. His mother, who was well-to-do, sent him to be educated in Paris, but at some point her fortunes declined, leaving Privat to earn a living as a freelance writer. He returned to Point-à-Pitre only once, and stayed for just twenty-three hours—at a time when the crossing took between twenty-five and thirty-five days. His allegiance was to Paris, and until his death from tuberculosis in 1859, he virtually owned the place, although he never had much money. He wore a “style-free” overcoat in all seasons and lived indifferently in furnished rooms, but never spent much time in them anyway, since he wrote in bars and cafés and spent his days and nights walking. As his colleague Alfred Delvau wrote, “He wrote his books with his legs.” He seemingly knew everyone in the city, from clochards to Balzac, knew every saloon-keeper by name, was esteemed by all. Once when he was set upon by thieves, he exclaimed, “But I’m Privat!”

In bohemia, social mobility went both ways; an autodidact of humble background could, if he lived long enough, eventually occupy an armchair at the Académie Française, just as a rising young bourgeois could abandon his studies to become an indigent poet, subsisting on café crêmes and whatever he could collect from passing the hat. There were, naturally, many more of the latter than of the former. Notice also the pronoun. Women were affiliated with bohemia, either as accessories (such as the original of Murger’s Mimi, a lacemaker named Lucille Louvet), or as inspirations, such as Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, the only woman Verlaine included in his 1884 anthology Les Poètes maudits, a great visionary poet who led a life of such unrelieved misery that she became known as Our Lady of Sorrows. But women did not start to become fully accredited members of bohemia until after World War II, and even then their art often seemed to be accompanied in estimation by a hovering asterisk.

Bohemia was a kind of priesthood, demanding vows of poverty if not chastity, with a sideline in mystification. There was an institutional bohemia, exemplified by the Club des Hydropathes, founded in 1878, which became Le Chat Noir, a salon-cum-nightclub as well as a magazine, which lasted until the eve of the twentieth century. It drew tourists and rubberneckers, and is preserved in popular culture by its trademark haloed feline, designed by Steinlen, but its output and membership ran in every direction. Its contributors included Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Erik Satie, in addition to, for example, the anarchist and street fighter Jules Jouy, or Édouard Dubus, who died at age thirty of a morphine overdose in a public urinal on Place Maubert, or Jehan Rictus—né Gabriel Randon—who personified the romance of poverty and gave voice to it in his Soliloquies of the Poor Man (1897), written in slang.

Le Chat Noir initiated the bohemian hegira to Montmartre from the Left Bank. Montmartre was a quiet country village, atmospherically distant from the city below, with tree-lined lanes and old farmhouses and quite a few remaining windmills, when it welcomed Picasso, Apollinaire, Utrillo, Gris, and so on. They in turn drew hundreds of epigones, who irrevocably altered the place, in one of the earliest examples of an artistic vanguard paving the way for commerce and eventual gentrification. Still, the pioneers did not have an easy time of it. They were assaulted by thugs who put out the gaslights by throwing rocks; some were murdered. And many bohemians themselves wound up in jail, a consequence of their poverty, which could be extreme. Francis Carco stole milk bottles from doorsteps, stole gas from streetlights, roasted meat on the hallway gas jet, once in a restaurant dribbled gravy on the slate on which his bill was written, then called over the house dog to lick it clean. The artist André Dignimont was skilled at heisting coin machines; a poet named Georges Banneret stole photo albums from cathouses to flog the dirty pictures individually. Many, such as Modigliani, squatted in empty houses with furniture stolen from café terraces, heated with firewood stripped from the wooden pavements of the exterior boulevards.

The Montmartre bohemians had no choice but to get their clothes from the flea market, and weird clothes were cheaper because they were less in demand. They wore Rembrandt hats, cavalry trousers, sailors’ jerseys, Spanish capes, coachmen’s capes, hooded cloaks, mechanics’ jumpsuits, dusters, priests’ hats, jockeys’ caps; the women sometimes unearthed elaborate ballgowns or the short eighteenth-century jackets called pet en l’air (fart in the open)—it was as if they were replaying all the fads of Le Childebert at once. Since oddball health regimes were also, almost inevitably, in effect, people went barefoot for reasons of “circulation” and wore colorful turbans that allegedly relieved headaches. Their parties were as loud and disruptive as things could get before the advent of amplified music: firecrackers, animal noises, breaking bottles, obscene songs, target practice with revolvers. As Guy Debord wrote much later: “Paris was a city so beautiful that many people preferred to be poor there than rich somewhere else.”