Literary bohemians were associated in the French imagination with roving Romani people (called Bohémiens because they were believed to have arrived from Bohemia), outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval. The term carries a connotation of arcane enlightenment (the opposite of Philistines), and carries a less frequently intended, pejorative connotation of carelessness about personal hygiene and marital fidelity.
The title character in Carmen (1876), a French opera set in the Spanish city of Seville, is referred to as a “bohémienne” in Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto. Her signature aria declares love itself to be a “gypsy child” (enfant de Bohême), going where it pleases and obeying no laws.
The term bohemian has come to be very commonly accepted in our day as the description of a certain kind of literary gypsy, no matter in what language he speaks, or what city he inhabits …. A Bohemian is simply an artist or “littérateur” who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art.— Westminster Review, 1862 )
Henri Murger‘s collection of short stories “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème” (“Scenes of Bohemian Life”), published in 1845, was written to glorify and legitimize Bohemia. Murger’s collection formed the basis of Giacomo Puccini‘s opera La bohème (1896).
In England, bohemian in this sense initially was popularised in William Makepeace Thackeray‘s novel, Vanity Fair, published in 1848. Public perceptions of the alternative lifestyles supposedly led by artists were further molded by George du Maurier‘s romanticized best-selling novel of Bohemian culture Trilby (1894). The novel outlines the fortunes of three expatriate English artists, their Irish model, and two colourful Central European musicians, in the artist quarter of Paris.
In Spanish literature, the Bohemian impulse can be seen in Ramón del Valle-Inclán‘s play Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights), published in 1920.
In his song La Bohème, Charles Aznavour described the Bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre. The film Moulin Rouge! (2001) also reflects the Bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre at the turn of the 20th century.
In the 1850s, aesthetic bohemians began arriving in the United States. In New York City in 1857, a group of 15 to 20 young, cultured journalists flourished as self-described bohemians until the American Civil War began in 1861. This group gathered at a German bar on Broadway called Pfaff’s beer cellar. Members included their leader Henry Clapp, Jr., Walt Whitman, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and actress Adah Isaacs Menken.
Similar groups in other cities were broken up as well by the Civil War and reporters spread out to report on the conflict. During the war, correspondents began to assume the title bohemian, and newspapermen in general took up the moniker. Bohemian became synonymous with newspaper writer. In 1866, war correspondent Junius Henri Browne, who wrote for the New York Tribune and Harper’s Magazine, described bohemian journalists such as he was, as well as the few carefree women and lighthearted men he encountered during the war years.