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.
- 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 writes 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.
- One Victim of the Week in Sailor Moon Super S was this trope. He was starving because his drawings were too realistic for people to believe them accurate (think self-delusion or inflated ego). When he collapses in front of Usagi, she takes him home and (for only the second time) cooks curry. In spite of its horrid appearance, he joyously scarfs it down. Few later he's "hired" by Cere Cere, who has targeted him under the disguise of a Rich Bitch; when he refuses to make a portrait of her on the grounds that there's something fake in her beauty and he won't paint it, she attacks him.
- In Gate, Risa is a doujinshi artist, but she can barely afford to pay her electric and heating bills and often has nothing to eat but soy milk and cereal.
- Satoru Fujinuma is one in ERASED. He's had one hit manga but has mostly been in a slump, with his editor telling him that his stories don't seem to connect for some reason. He works part-time as a pizza delivery driver to help make ends meet in the meantime.
- Subaru in My Roommate is a Cat is this because he's The Shut-In who gets so fixated on trying to meet his deadlines as a writer that he forgets to eat (or sleep). Reality Ensues and he ends up passing out due to lack of food the first time we see this. He winds up reflexively eating a bowl of Haru's catfood after she becomes so worried about him that she pushes it over to him after he collapses. All his friends and neighbors comment on how underweight he looks, too. As the series progresses, he becomes better at taking care of himself.
- 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
- The Swedish edition of MAD Magazine ran a comic in the early '80s set in Konstfack, the University Of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. One of the classes shown was teaching the students this trope, such as surviving an entire week on a glass of ketchup and painting your semester final project, a mouth-watering oil painting of a three-course dinner made out of food-scented wax after a month of starvation. Needless to say, the students taking that class are somewhat worse for wear.
- Robin Series: When Tim needed to hire someone to play the part of his non-existent uncle indefinitely he looked for actors who were good at their craft, looked enough like family to pass as such, and were so chronically out of work and broke that they'd be willing to take the bizarre job. He didn't have any trouble finding one.
- Another Swedish example is the satirical comic Arne Anka, which is partially biographical and based on the artist's life as a Starving Artist in the early '80s, though unlike him, the main character Arne is a poet and writer rather than an illustrator. Arne's best friend Krille is a bit more successful, being a semi-successful director, but still often had money issues.
- Dame Lyra Heartstrings of RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse is not this trope, but seems unable to convince her friend Dame Trixie that she actually does make plenty of money. Though even Lyra will admit that while her work pays well, the hours can be pretty random, and she does sometimes run into cash-flow problems.
- Averted hard in The Victors Project: Where Luxe St. James, the most artistic of the victors, is also the wealthiest due to having been from an affluent family even before receiving his victors salary.
- 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 as such.
- 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 antagonized yet.
- Reno, the Villain Protagonist of The Driller Killer, barely makes a living out of selling his paintings, which actually don't sell. This is just the start of his descent into a madman on a power-tool-fueled killing spree.
- Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne are doing this in 1937's The Life of Émile Zola, to the point that the opening scene looks like a Shout-Out to La Bohème.
- At the start of Some Like It Hot, Jerry and Joe are poor musicians in Chicago who have to sell their overcoats (in February) to make ends meet after Joe makes a bad bet.
- 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.
- This really happened. Look up Ernest Malley.
- Scenes de la Vie de Boheme is a novel by Henri Murger about 4 different starving artists that served as the 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, but he also 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.
- Also note that Kafka actually had a pretty well-paying and thoroughly bourgeois job as an insurance agent, which he, however, felt to be empty and unfulfilling, thus turning his passion to writing.
- 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 a success.
- In Veniss Underground, Nicholas starts the novel as an unsuccessful holo artist, dependent on loans from his sister.
- Knut Hamsun wrote the novel Hunger in 1890, telling the story of a writer who...
- Went around in Christiania, starving.
- Nina Tanleven: Byron Fletcher is specifically referred to as one in The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, and identified as "following in the family tradition" because of it.
- The Amy Virus: The reason why Cyan's father discourages her drumming and songwriting hobbies, and doesn't want her older sister Tam to go to Rhode Island School of Design for college, is because he believes that being a doctor is the only way to make a living in the current 2010s US economy. However, this belief also demonstrates one of the ways Daniel enforces his control over his family. Not only is he insistent that they attend Caltech, his Alma Mater, despite being other good colleges out there, but he also goes so far as to confiscate any of Cyan's music and instruments to keep her from practicing her hobby. Also, in Tam's case, she's planning on averting this by majoring in Industrial Design at RISD, which would help her find a very good career where she can use her artistry.
- Dick Francis: Varies from book to book. It Subverted in Shattered, where Gerry Logan does quite well at his business. Played straight in Longshot (up to and including the leaking garrett.) In To the Hilt and In the Frame, the artists live unconventional lives, but are far from financially strapped. Contrast with Reflex where the art (photography) is pure hobby.
- 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 The 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, scraping by on being Caroline's colorist while waiting for his break. One episode addressed it directly when a doodle he made and accidentally sent in with Caroline's comic generated some interest, Richard flat-out refused. Richard said he didn't want to sell out; Caroline wondered if he wasn't just in love with the whole romantic idea of the Starving Artist.
- Brian Topp in Spaced. His work is inspired by "anger... pain... fear... aggression..." and is "a bit more complicated" than watercolours. His Perpetual Poverty once left him unable to pay the rent and required him to make an, ahem, arrangement with his landlady. He's never been able to live it down.
- 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 make 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.
- Stuart from The Big Bang Theory is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and a talented illustrator, considering the quite stunning sketch of Penny he did back in season one. He's also spent most of the series' run stuck in Perpetual Poverty, as the comic store he runs, which is also his primary source of income, tends to barely allow him to make ends meet. Occasionally his luck does improve, though.
- Supernatural, "Crossroad Blues": George Darrow sold his soul to a demon in exchange for artistic talent and spent the next ten years making amazing paintings... that nobody wanted to buy. Broke and alone, he spends his last days working on his final masterpiece and wishing he'd asked the demon for fame and fortune instead.
- Mr. Jellinek on Strangers with Candy quits his teaching job to pursue his dream of being an artist and within days is homeless and penniless. Somewhat justified in that we pay teachers shamefully low wages so it's not unrealistic that he wouldn't have much savings.
- La Bohème, the famous 1896 opera, as well as RENT, its modern update.
- My Sister Eileen and The Musical Wonderful Town have Ruth Sherwood, an aspiring young writer whose stories don't come back only when she can't pay the return postage, and her sister Eileen, a would-be actress. They don't get much choice in what food they eat and have difficulty coming up with money for subway and bus fares.
- 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.
- Emo Teen Meridian in Telepath Tactics bemoans this fate, and discusses it with Harynx in one scene.
Harynx: The way you capture the moonlight on those bushes...I don't know anyone who can draw like that. You've got talent. You could be an artist.
Meridian: No. I tried being an artist, and I failed. Talent doesn't mean anything if no one buys your work. You can't eat talent.
Harynx: I didn't need anyone's permission [to do what I wanted in life]. And you don't either. We're not slaves; we're free! We can choose to do whatever we want with our lives.
Meridian: Yeah, okay. Great. Are we free from hunger? From the elements? Are we free from the necessity of selling off our days to other, wealthier people for the money to keep ourselves alive? No slaver's going to kill me if I decide to return to drawing. They don't have to. Starvation's waiting just around the corner with a cudgel, and it's happy to do the job.
- Yusuke Kitagawa from Persona 5 is an artist who's literally starving, not because of any lack of skill or interest in his art, but because his mentor/adoptive father Madarame steals all the credit and profit from his work and leaves him overworked and poor. Even after Madarame is taken down by the Phantom Thieves, Yusuke is still seen constantly eating in the background and gets excited at the mention of food. Conversations between him and the other Phantom Thieves reveal that he spends all his money on art supplies.
- Laurel (Laurent in the NES translation) from Torneko/Taloon's chapter in Dragon Quest IV is a traveling poet who decides to take up work as a mercenary because poetry doesn't pay the bills.
- Passpartout: The Starving Artist Simulator is a game about, well, a starving artist in France with an unhealthy addiction to fine wine and baguettes. The player has to draw the paintings themselves in order to pay their bills. No quick time events, no puzzles, not even a template! You have to draw from scratch, and a machine-learning AI judges your work accordingly based on pictures from the internet and your previous work.
- 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.
- In Webcomic Name, one artist wants to devote their life to art, but in doing so, they don't have any income and they die buried under a tombstone that reads "Oh no".
- The Key of Awesome's 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- This was chiefly a personal decision, though, as he largely lived on the support from his brother Theo, a quite successful art dealer, and didn't want either to inconvenience his brother too much, nor compromise his artistic integrity for more financially rewarding styles and themes. Had he agreed to make his art more accessible to the public of the time, he wouldn't have this much of financial problem.
- 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, Jonathan Blow, 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. This is becoming less common as subscription-based services like Patreon are making it easier for artists to earn a steady living off their art.
- 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.
- Neil Young had an early period of this and after the Mynah Birds fell apart note , had to sell his equipment just to buy food.
- Patti Smith talks about this in detail in her first memoir, Just Kids. She and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe were determined to make it as artists, so even though they usually both had jobs they spent most of their earnings on supplies.
- In his younger years Jules Verne was this, after he dropped from studying law, devoting himself to literature and Parisian Boheme, and his father, a wealthy provincial lawyer who hoped that he would inherit a family practice, cut the financial support. To feed himself and his new family, Verne had to turn to the stock exchange, where he had to make a living as a stockbroker until he had a big break with the Five Weeks in a Balloon. Just as with Kafka above, while he was quite successful at this job, he hated it immensely.
- Invoked by the father of children's book illustrator Ezra Jack Keats. Ezra's father worked at a restaurant and, while supportive of his son's love of art, was skeptical about him trying to making a living from that. He even went as far as to give young Ezra tubes of paint, claiming that starving artists traded those to him in exchange for food.
- J. K. Rowling was a single parent on state benefits (welfare) and described herself being "as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain" before producing Harry Potter
- The "practice" of paying artists in exposure (mainly thinking that the sheer prestige and reputation you get will be adequate) is a very large problem in artists today, leading to a movement from other artists about them being paid what they're worth. This has led to a variety of jokes like either turning in a blank page (since you're not being paid you don't have to give any work) or saying "Exposure is something you die of."
- Lillian Marie Disney who was the wife of Walt Disney, started out as this. She was the youngest of ten children, and her family was poor. They even set aside money for food to buy her art supplies.