Starving Artist

A Starving Artist by a Starving Artist.

They've got little money, and lots of talent (or not). Being an artist isn't a career with steady pay, and art supplies are expensive. Artists that haven't quite reached commercial success (or haven't gotten picked up by a wealthy patron) often live poorly.

Due to several influential artists having historically been starving artists, the inherent dramatic potential of being talented but cash-deprived, and the appeal of living a life without material possessions, these portrayals are often quite romantic.

If they've got all of the starving but none of the talent, they're Giftedly Bad. If they are still in art school they are also a Starving Student. If they wear shabby clothes and eat mac & cheese because they're actively trying to project the image of being a struggling artist, they're probably a hipster.

Because Most Writers Are Writers, the Starving Writer is a common protagonist in these circumstances. If combined with One-Hour Work Week (as it often is), the reader may come away with the impression that they'd have a better chance of making money if they ever did any writing.

If the Starving Artist has relatives, expect them to be pushing for the character to "grow up" and "get a real job". Generally, if success is elusive, expect them to eventually take up a steady but unfulfilling job with a boring, bourgeois lifestyle, or to die tragically.

See also Brilliant but Lazy, for the genius who has no money because they don't apply themselves, and Reclusive Artist.


Anime and Manga
  • In Doraemon, the title character and Nobita go back in time to help a starving artist at least once, and on another occasion tried to use time travel to buy the works of a now famous (and obscenely rich) painter. They ended up buying a painting made by Nobita's father, who apprenticed under the artist as a college student.
  • Kia Freeborn from Heat Guy J. He works several odd jobs, while trying to become a famous guitarist. Incidentally, Kia once did lead a very comfortable and pampered life (also, Kia is not his birth name), until his father (a famous musician) fell victim to the Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll trope, and eventually left his wife when he got The Mistress pregnant, and started a new life with her, leaving Kia and his mother in the lurch.
    • Another character is a (supposedly talented) poet who borrowed money from The Mafia, ostensibly to work on his poems and make a better life for himself and his girlfriend, but ended up gambling it all away and having a huge debt to pay back. He tries pleading with Clair to allow him to either get an extension on the repayment or get the debt forgiven. Clair agrees, on the condition that the poet write him a poem that's to his liking. (None of the poems are, needless to say. To be fair, they were pretty painful to listen to, but it's unlikely that Clair, being the Smug Snake that he is, would have forgiven the debt even if the poet had written genuinely wonderful poems.) The poet gets a "The Reason You Suck" Speech from Clair and is (literally) thrown out the door where his girlfriend is waiting.

  • The Poor Poet (pictured above) is a painting by Carl Spitzweg that depicts this.

  • Wallace from Sin City is an artist who has a great deal of talent but his perverted boss demands that he make pornographic artwork. He refuses and barely has enough cash to scrape together. Dwight, an aspiring photographer had the same problem with the same boss.
  • Underground Comics artist Dori Seda.
  • Kuno Klecksel from Wilhelm Busch's stories, sometimes

  • Tony Hancock's character in The Rebel has a hard time getting by in Paris until a fellow artist's work is mistaken for his, at which point he becomes the toast of the town.
  • Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris.
  • Withnail & I has the protagonists.
  • Sunset Boulevard has Joe Gillis as a starving Hollywood screenwriter.
  • The protagonists of Design For Living, played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March, are a starving painter and playwright respectively. March proudly declares "I write unproduced plays," and Cooper freely admits his annual salary is zero and that he survives "on miracles."
  • The Bohemians in Moulin Rouge! — all of whom are so absinthe-addled and otherwise quirky that it's not hard to see how they can't keep steady employment even in world Montmarte.
  • The protagonist in The Pianist.
  • The eponymous protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis lives a hand-to-mouth, semi-vagrant existence crashing on the couches of acquaintances and relatives, at least those that he has not completely antagonised yet.

  • Two old actors are sitting on a bench. One says: "How long has it been since you had a job?" The other actor says "Thirty two years — how about you?" The first actor says, "That's nothing. I haven't had a job in forty years!" The other says, "One of these days we've got to get out of this business!"

  • Jack in the book Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime. All three of the protagonists are— one is a novelist, one is a man looking to have a radio show, and the other is a singer, and they are barely scraping together money to survive.
  • In one of Mark Twain's short stories, there are two starving artists who decide to con their way into getting money. They make a bunch of art and manufacture a story about how the artist who painted these things is fatally ill. Naturally, the artist in question eventually "dies", and his paintings become valuable overnight.
  • Scenes de la Vie de Boheme is a novel by Henri Murger about 4 different starving artists that was inspiration for La Bohème.
  • The title character of Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist not only doesn't make much for his completely under-appreciated art form, he represents this trope in the most literal way imaginable by using self-starvation as his medium. Kafka himself was an example.
    • Though Kafka's art wasn't his livelihood, and he never even attempted to publish his works, and ordered them destroyed in his will - a clause which thankfully wasn't fulfilled.
  • James Joyce lived much of his life in poverty, and by extension his Author Avatar Stephen Dedalus, in Ulysses, does as well.
  • Of Human Bondage has the protagonist and all of the supporting characters in this situation at some point; the view of the artist ranges from one committing suicide because they have completely starved, and the others romanticizing it and foolishly comparing it all to La Bohème.
  • In Dorothy Gilman's The Clairvoyant Countess, Madame Karitska's landlord is this, which is why he has to have her rent on time.
  • The protagonists of the Jason Keltner mysteries start out as a starving musician, a starving artist and a starving actor, and get drawn into mysteries when Jason is set up to take the fall or otherwise fail. Years later they become comfortable on steady commercial work; far from starving, but also far from what they envisioned as success.
  • In Veniss Underground, Nicholas starts the novel as an unsuccessful holo artist, dependent on loans from his sister.

Live-Action TV
  • In Seinfeld, Elaine's ex-boyfriend was an artist. She remarks that he's pretty fat for an artist. Most of the time when the Girl of the Week was an artist on Seinfeld, there were remarks that it was probably why their work was expensive.
  • One Patient of the Week on House was an artist who couldn't sell any of his work and participated in clinical trials to get money so he could hide this from his girlfriend.
  • The blonde dad from My Two Dads was this and was called this by the brunette dad.
  • In an episode of Golden Girls Blanche gives money to an artist she meets in the waiting room at the mental health clinic who had burned all his brushes to stay warm. He turns out to be a compulsive liar.
  • Richard in Caroline in the City.
  • When Caitlin gets a Visit by Divorced Dad in Caitlin's Way, he is a potter and his lack of money gets him blamed for a counterfeit scam.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The episode "Vincent and the Doctor" focused on the starving artist Vincent van Gogh. As mentioned in the Real Life section, Van Gogh's paintings never sold well when he was alive, and the episode focuses heavily on the man's mental health on account of this, his depression, and his psychic visions which makes him seem crazy.
    • The Fourth Doctor, "the bohemian", borrows heavily from the romanticised image of this character type in terms of his scruffy physical appearance, fashion sense, interests (art, poetry, music, acting - he is one of only a few Doctors who show any interest in creating art himself) and other superficial personality traits. The original concept for his costume design was the famous poster of Aristide Bruant by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His actual personality is much weirder than this, though.
  • Wendy Watson in The Middleman, which is the plot driver for her to take the job at the Jolly Fats Wehawkin Temp Agency. To a lesser extent, her young, photogenic, animal activist room-mate Lacy Thornfield.
  • In Fawlty Towers, Polly does sketches, but doesn't sell enough to let her quit her hectic waitressing job.
  • The HBO series of the same name portrays the Flight of the Conchords as broke artists and plays it for laughs. In the episode, "New Cup", they can't pay rent this month because Bret bought a cup, not an unusual expensive cup, a regular cup. In the finale, they get evicted not because they didn't pay rent, but because they were paying in New Zealand dollars. Though they're bad and not Giftedly Bad so much as comically bad.
  • in the Inside No 9 episode "Tom and Gerri", Gerri is an actress who's been unemployed for several months and owes her boyfriend a lot of money (which causes tension between them.) She's reduced to auditioning for the part of "D-Day Doris" in a play touring retirement homes, because she can't find any other work.

  • La Bohème, the famous 1896 opera, as well as RENT, its modern update.
  • Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town is a starving writer in Greenwich Village.
  • In Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano is a talented artist/writer. He's still dirt poor because he spends most of his time writing satiric letters that insult everyone he sees as false — which is everyone. His willingness to spend an entire month's allowance on a single grand gesture doesn't help either. The poets who frequent Raguenau's company are less sympathetic examples: they claim to love his poetry but only want to eat his food for free.

Truth in Television
  • One example in particular is Vincent van Gogh, who used the very little money he made to buy art supplies and lived on coffee and absinthe. As if his mental health wasn't bad enough, poor nutrition made his physical health that much worse.
  • Pink Floyd aka David Gilmour fit this trope pretty well in his pre-Floyd days, to the point that he was hospitalized for malnutrition in 1966.
  • Nick Drake spent much of the latter part of his life living with his parents off of a £20-a-week retainer from Island Records. Eventually that stopped too.
  • Many webcomic artists and indie game developers tend to be this (or support their job with a steady job like retail). The few artists one hears about spending several years of pure work on something generally aren't as starving as one thinks. For instance, the creator of Braid was able to spend the two years working on just Braid because he was able to spend 200K of his own money on the project.
  • Alfons Mucha, rather than keeping his cushy job with Gandegg, first studied in Austria and then at Paris where his subsidy was cut off. He lived on one meal every other day, making this exactly what it says on the tin. He did it all For The Art, and wished he didn't have to do so many advertisements.
  • It may only reference the trope, but there is a chain of cafes called the Starving Artist Café.
  • Kurt Cobain was actually homeless during some points of his life. He would sneak into apartment buildings in the middle of the night and sleep in the hallways.
Web Comics
  • There's a homeless artist ("Will paint for food") in Least I Could Do. The character is based on Lar deSouza, a friend of the author who really was a homeless artist for a time. Years after the creation of the character, deSouza took over as artist for the comic strip.
  • In Koan Of The Day, the guru never has any money.
  • Crusader in Jay And Crusader.
  • Living with Insanity: David has no day job, he just makes comics with Paul. But it's shown this nets them no income.
  • Andrew Hussie of MS Paint Adventures has a bit of this in that he needs to regularly put out new merchandise to cover the costs of all the bandwidth his fanbase generates.
  • In Three Jaguars, Artist would be this, if the Business Manager let her.
  • In Squid Row, Randie ekes out a living from her jobs.

Web Original
  • The Key of Awesome parody of "Somebody That I Used To Know" has an entire band of them.
    We look so sad because we're starved
    Tonight for dinner we're splitting a candy bar.

Western Animation
  • After Squidward quits his job in Spongebob Squarepants, he becomes a starving artist. No one wanted his paintings so he had to eat them.
  • Flight of the Conchords play Art Camp counsellors in an episode of The Simpsons. It turns out that when Art Camp is out they work at Sprubway, where they get all the sandwiches that drop on the floor.
    Bret: Unless we drop them on purpose.
    Jemaine: They have cameras on us all the time.
  • In the late 50s, Gene Deitch created Gaston Le Crayon for the Terrytoons studio. Gaston was an impoverished, unlucky French artist who made things come to life by painting or drawing them.
  • Discussed at the Academy of Art during Dan Vs.. Art.
    Clerk: Are you trying to bribe me... with a sandwich?
    Dan: Come on, aren't you a starving artist? It's a really good sandwich.