Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

October 24, 2006–January 28, 2007

Artists in Paris

Americans were entranced by two stereotypes about the artist's life in Paris—the impecunious bohemian and the self-confident flâneur. Painters often adopted one of these distinctively Parisian personas in their self-portraits or in their depictions of one another, thus claiming for themselves a certain cosmopolitan sophistication.

The bohemian ideal was first characterized by the French writer Henri Murger during the 1840s. In a series of magazine articles based on his own experiences, Murger told stories in which artists sacrifice creature comforts in order to devote themselves to their muse. His tales were turned into a successful musical in 1849, published as a book in 1851, and translated into English in 1888. Murger's stories inspired Giacomo Puccini's popular 1896 opera La Bohéme and continued to captivate Americans for decades.

Described by Charles Baudelaire in his essays of the 1850s, the flâneur was a modern character, "a gentleman stroller of the city streets." Consummately well dressed, he was a man-about-town, an impartial observer of contemporary urban life.