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They've got little money, and lots of talent. 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 got 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 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.
Anime and Manga
- Doraemon - Doraemon 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.
- 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 and 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.
- 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 Boheme.
- 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 Boheme.
- 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.
- The Doctor Who 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.
- Rent, the modern update of La Boheme.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Crusader in Jay And Crusader.
- David has no day job, he just makes comics with Paul. But it's shown this nets them no income.
- 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.