Retracing the Paths of Famous Artists and Poets in Paris

Excerpts from the book “Magic of La Bohème”

Critics regard Puccini’s works as sentimental, but the fact of the matter is: They are enchanting! Whilst working on Mimi’s dying scene, Puccini is said to have burst into heavy sobbing. The spiritual and sensory origin of his aesthetic sensitivity was Tuscany. It was in Torre del Lago, a romantic village near Lucca, that he lived and suffered with the heroes and heroines of his operas. “La Bohème” made the maestro world famous. Its success entirely freed him from financial worries. Nevertheless, he continued to hold the bohemian lifestyle in high regard, and even founded a bohemian club. His opera is marked by Baudlairesque anti-bourgeois aesthetics. The composer had read Henry Murger’s novel in one sitting. The subject allowed him to express exactly what he felt inside.

Puccini valued social justice and was enthusiastic about the literature of Balzac, Hugo, and Zola. He also loved the scenery around his house by the lake. The snowfall in his famous opera bears testimony to the subtle nuances of his nature writing. Murger, on the other hand, was a true bohemian. Based on his own bitter experience, the character Schaunard wanders through Paris leading a hand-to-mouth existence. Like Puccini, he founds a bohemian society in which everything belongs to everyone, and pain and sorrow are shared by all. Opposed to constraints of every nature, its members despise falsehood and wickedness. The touching side of these human fates at the fringes of society is accompanied by imperturbability and recklessness. Murger and Puccini regarded this lovingly and expressed it in lyrical colors. No, they did not invent the freezing attics of Paris. Murger had experienced the city’s packed poorhouses himself and captured his own world in his stories.

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Magic of La Bohème“.

An Homage to Paris and Puccini

Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece “La Bohème” is one of the five most frequently performed operas in the world. Set in Paris, the main reason for its success is that it depicts the actual lives, pains, and loves of artists working without trying to please the public, striving instead to create pure art. Any life governed by such idealistic ambitions is somewhat awe-inspiring. Cherishing the complete creative freedom the bohemians sought, this book predominantly features works unrelated to its title topic. The subject of “La Bohème” is extremely popular. Charles Aznavour sang about it in his world-famous chanson, Thomas Mann dedicated passages to it in his classic novel “Magic Mountain”. At the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s death, the bohemian spirit brought together 59 artists from 26 countries to celebrate the opera’s international success with contemporary imagery. The editor of this book has divided the artworks from around the world into chapters and added selected haiku poems, exquisite quotes, descriptive statements, and illustrations. The result is a multifaceted homage from an imaginative perspective.

Storm and Stress between Heaven and Earth

Puccini‘s Paris holds the same charm as Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings. The authentic French atmosphere of “La Bohème” is all the more impressive, considering that Puccini disliked big cities and had never been to Paris. The snow-covered Christmas Eve in Acts I and II of his opera is the scenic version of an impressionist plein-air painting. Claude Debussy praised the genuine Parisian charm of its music, although the theme of the theme of Musetta’s famous waltz had been written years earlier, inspired by a hunting trip on a lake near Torre del Lago. As one melodic surprise leads to the next, a Parisian love story unfolds. Puccini’s long-overdue encounter with Paris at the Opéra Comique in 1898 was a huge success.

Traveling through Paris, every corner bears the traces of once poor, now world-famous artists, poets, and composers: valuable paintings at museums, small memorial plaques, graves covered with kisses, monuments, and a plethora of musical events bear witness to their creativity. Many great painters lived on Montmartre. Once upon a time, tout Paris casually strolled in and out at the present-day Museum of Romantic Life at the foot of the mountain. The Rue Coulaincourt was once home to Tolouse-Lautrec, closeby lived Degas. Houses stood on the lot now overgrown by vine leaves (Montmartre Museum), Renoir and Tolouse-Lautrec once painted there. The Moulin de la Galette on 83 Rue Lepic was already a popular restaurant back then. Even Van Gogh and Picasso were inspired by it. The famous Bateau-Lavoir, on the other hand, is considered the birth place of cubism, where Picasso created his world-renowned painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon“. Picasso’s banquet dedicated to Henri Rousseau has also entered the annals of history. Formerly a rundown wood shack, the building had been inhabited by the likes of Kees van Dongen, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, and Amadeo Modigliani. Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau had been frequent visitors. Another Montmartre haunt of Picasso’s bohemian association was “Au Lapin Agile” at 22 Rue des Saules. Later, many artists moved to the artists’ quarters “La Ruche” on Montparnasse and “Les Fusains” at 22 Rue Tourlaque towards the foot of Montmartre.

Puccini’s opera, on the other hand, is set in the Latin Quarter during the Biedermeier era. (Voltaire is buried at the pantheon.) Walking through the romantic Rue Mouffetard, the music from the motion picture “Amélie” seems to be drifting into one’s ears, as one floats back in time to when the young Hemingway was writing his columns in house No. 39 (Paul Verlaine had lived and written there, too), and habitually strolling down to the Seine to drop by the Shakespeare & Co bookstore. Today, the book lover’s heaven is located on Rue de la Bûcherie. A picturesque bridge leads across to Île de la Cité, where Charles Baudelaire wrote his famous “Fleurs du Mal” and ruined his health at the hashish club. (The Hôtel Lauzune on Quai d’Anjou with its ornate golden balcony can also be seen from aboard the ships passing by). In Adam Mickiewicz’s house – which has now become a museum – his friend Chopin used to visit often, and his death mask is displayed there. Picasso painted the “bow” of the larger island Île de la Cité on Pont Neuf in “Square du Vert Galant”. From his studio at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins, the Seine was not so far.

Later, Hemingway lived at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine by the legendary Place de la Contrescarpe he described in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. “A Movable Feast” mentions many more of his favorite spots in the city. The studios of the artists and poets seemed shabby to him, the quarters of Gertrude Stein (27 Rue Fleurus) all the more impressive. He surprised her near the Jardin du Luxembourg. His two-room apartment without hot water and a toilet could not have been located in a poorer neighborhood. At least, it had a beautiful view. The inspiring feng shui above the roofs of the city was popular with poets and artists alike. But let us stay at the Jardin du Luxembourg a little longer: In “Les Misérables“, Victor Hugo (also see museum “Maison de Victor Hugo”, Marais district) described it as a charming garden whose flowers smelled of perfume, and whose insects, birds, and wind played a thousand melodies. The Medici Fountain and the Delacroix monument are two other must-sees. After a hearty supper in 1831, Balzac accompanied the writer George Sand from his home in the Chaillot district (Balzac Museum) to the Jardin de Luxembourg after they had been chatting all night. Balzac placed several characters from the Comédie humaine in this quarter, and the garden became a setting for many of its passionate altercations. This was where Rilke wrote his famous poem about the merry-go-round that is still there today, “The Panther” was written at the Jardin de Plantes.

In Montparnasse, art lovers like to visit the Place Pablo Picasso to honor Rodin’s Balzac sculpture. Like the bohemians in Murger’s novel, the area allows one to float from one artists’ and writers’ café to the next. Of course, today, they are sophisticated and well-to-do like Picasso’s life was later. All of them were there… Hemingway skipped the “Rotonde”, preferring the clientele of the “Dôme“. The nearby Campagne Premier was once home to Modigliani, considered the chronicler of bohemian life in Montparnasse. At the end of the street lies the “Hôtel Istria”. The memorial plaque features: Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Erik Satie, Rainer Maria Rilke, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Vladimir Majakovksi. On the other side of the road, the blue flowers of a small jardin dedicated to Yves Klein emit their scent. Right by the entrance of Montparnasse cemetery lies the kiss-covered grave of Simone de Beauvoirs und Jean Paul Sartres.

The couple once dominated the scene at the cafés of St. Germain-des Prés. The little jardin by the church sports Picasso’s bust of Dora Maar. On the way to the Musée Delacroix on Eglise Saint Sulpice, passers-by can see a huge painting by the artist. It is also worth visiting the garden of the Rodin Museum. The former Hôtel Biron was once the dwelling place of a colorful bohemian crowd including Jean Cocteau and Matisse, who loved the wild garden: a country site feeling in the middle of Paris. Rodin’s “The Kiss” stands in front of the orangery, which shows Monet’s famous water lily design and can be reached through Tuileries adorned with statues. Marcel Proust immortalized the lush, green Champs-Élysées in the first volume of „In Search of Lost Time”. From the Louvre, it is worth visiting the Jardin Royal. Molière’s chair at the Comédie-Française can be admired from the outside. At the end of the garden lies the popular restaurant “Le Grand Vefours”. Colette lived in this street, and this is where she wrote “Paris from my Window”. More than 6000 people, mainly women, paid the famous bohemian lady their last respects at her state funeral in the main courtyard of the Palais Royal.

Hommage to Paris

By the small plaza
With jazz trumpeter Louis,
Hemingway once lived.

Transformed from ash-gray
To magnificent façades
Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Tender all around
„The Kiss“ in the sweet-scented
Linden-lined alley.

Way up high, above
The hubbub of the traffic,
The poet’s attic.

View of Notre-Dame.
A reverie? The spring-pink
Blush of the maples.

Adorned with statues
The pergolas. The gardens
Rich with ornaments.

From the depths of
Pigeon-gray stone canyons, a bright
Full moon emerges.

Sources: Please see the authors, poet and bibliography in the above link to the online book (imprint at the end of the book)!