Famous Bohemians & The Monmartre

“The art and the Bohemian lifestyle have always been akin. Fully immersed in creativity, famous bohemian
artists defined art as their religion and saw themselves as non-conformists opposed to the conventions of
bourgeois society — drifters, visionaries or madmen possessed by inspiration.”

Martinique, E. (April 24, 2016). “Famous Artists of the 20th Century Who Knew How To Live.” Widewalls.

Paris’ vivid, colorful, and legendary Montmartre district, the birthplace of The Moulin Rouge, was a social and artistic hub for Bohemians to socially gather in some of the city’s seedier spots such as salons, cafés, dance halls, galleries, and bars. Montmartre gave inspiration to artists like Picasso, Zola, and Renoir, who lived and worked there. Today, the Montmartre continues to retain some of its original spirit and ‘joie de vivre’ with its vibrant cafes, world-renowned restaurants, and lively entertainment venues.

The following are some of the French artists of the era who lived the Bohemian lifestyle, and whose eccentric unconventionality became synonymous with their famous careers:

A Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and and stage designer, Pablo Picasso is one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century. Both Picasso and Georges Braque have been credited with the creation and development of Cubism. In 1899, Picasso fell in with a crowd of artists and intellectuals in Barcelona at the famous tavern and brothel, El Quatre Gats (“The Four Cats”). His real bohemian life began as a teenager (circa. 1900) in Montmartre, the rustic quarter of Paris where many artisans, factory workers, tradesmen, petty criminals, performers, and courtesans communed. Inspired by the anarchists and radicals he met from the café culture, Picasso made a pivotal change in his work by letting go of his training in the classical methods and adopting a lifelong process of innovation and
experimentation with his art.

A most beloved actress who gained great popularity and success during Paris’s Belle Epoque era [1871 – 1914], Sarah Bernhardt became known as ‘The Divine Sarah’, a nickname expressing her fans’ admiration of her. She starred in some of the earliest films ever produced, which garnered her great attention as she introduced the world to the grandeur of theatrical arts. She established her own travel company and traveled widely. She became well-known internationally as a famous star and idol. Bernhardt’s successful career and influence helped pave the paths of many professional actresses after her. Her contribution to the performing arts is forever lasting.

Artist/Writer, Francis Picabia (1879 – 1953) A French painter, illustrator, designer, writer, and editor, Picabia was deeply involved with the art movements of Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. In the late teens and early 1920s, he became a leading figure of the Dada movement, where he produced fun-filled works with double meanings, hidden messages, and cryptic puzzles. After studying at the École des Arts Décoratifs (1895 – 1897), his work remained rooted, for approximately six years, in the impressionist tradition. 1909 marked his departure from impressionism to a Cubist style, and, with fellow artiste, Marcel Duchamp, in 1911, he helped establish the Section d’Or, a group of Cubist artists. Picabia went on to combine the Cubist style with its more lyrical variation known as Orphism, which portrayed collections of tightly mounted, metallic-like abstract shapes. As Picabia moved away from Cubism to Orphism, his colors and shapes became softer.


While throughout this theme we’ve explored the colorful, vigorous, and artistic nature of the Bohemian culture, we have not yet acknowledged that this type of lifestyle often comes at a cost. The Bohemian way of life is, by its very existence, risky. Just as the “fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” are consumed by the very fire that first gave them ignition, so too have many of our brightest Bohemian artists succumbed to mental and physical ailments. The well-known archetype of the “tortured artist” – or the artist who has to suffer for his/her art in order to find inspiration and creativity – exists for a reason.

Just as Satine, trapped in her gilded-elephant lair, fights consumption and Zidler struggles with money woes as the producer of Moulin Rouge, other real-life creative geniuses – such as Jackson Pollock, Goya, Sylvia Plath, Georgia O’Keefe, Kurt Cobain, Jack Kerouac, Amy Winehouse, and Vincent Van Gogh to name a few – also faced similar battles. The phrase, “turn your pain into art” is something most of us have heard before and indeed, buy into. Most people know the struggle of a self-employed actor in New York City or have heard of the crippling effects of ‘writer’s block’. Sacrifice is often considered a given – with the belief that only through crisis and challenge do we grow. Professor Victoria Tischler, an expert in art and health at the University of West London claims that while “creativity or creative careers do not, in themselves, cause health problems, working in a creative environment can certainly affect [one’s] health and lead to the spreading of the tortured artist ideal” (Banymadhub 2018).

With its excessive and flashy patina, the Moulin Rouge presents a pretty façade, and yet, behind the curtain, we see evidence of great strain in this environment. Eventually, the truth is revealed to us: Satine, our leading lady succumbs to illness; her lover Christian is devastated. A rich duke finds that money cannot buy him love, and he is left to stand alone. Lautrec and Santiago (our writers and creators) rely on producer Harold Zidler, and at the same time, Zidler is beholden to his primary financier, the Duke. In this way, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is very much a cautionary tale – yes, you ‘can,can,can’ but at what price?

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