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What Is a Starving Artist?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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A starving artist is a painter, poet, actor, musician, or other artist who lives in poverty. Life may be a financial struggle for the undiscovered artist who often cannot earn enough to make a living from art. An artist as the romantic, sometimes tragic figure portrayed in literature and theater, is based on the bohemian counterculture that began in nineteenth century Paris. The French starving artists, or bohemians as they were known, were poorly housed and fed, yet were passionate about their artistic life as their raison d'etre, or reason for being.

The use of the term "bohemian" was inspired by Bohemian people from the part of the Czech Republic known as Bohemia, but it did not refer to all aspects of the actual Bohemian lifestyle. The French and other nationalities tended to view the actual Bohemians and Gypsies as con-artists and circus folk rather than actual artists. The French used the expression "bohemian" to describe a starving artist related only to the poverty-ridden yet free-spirited outlook of Bohemians and Gypsies.

The first bohemians were Parisian bourgeois; young people beginning to live on their own. They lived the impoverished life of a starving artist, yet most did have homes to return to whenever they chose. Soon, working class people who were actually poor also began living the life of the bohemian.

Housing for a typical 1850s bohemian was a small, sparsely furnished attic-style room on the top floor of an apartment building as these units were cheaper in Paris than housing on the lower floors. Many stairs, often hundreds, had to be climbed to reach the upper rooms. Sometimes several students shared a suite of rooms and focused on their art while also inspiring others. Food for the starving artist was often limited to small amounts of items such as potatoes, cheese, and herring. When a bohemian did have some money, it was common to treat other bohemians to a fine meal of lobster and wine.

Henry Murger's 1849 play, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, was the first piece of art to make the general public more knowledgeable of the bohemian counterculture. Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables in which bohemian students were included as characters would appear later, in 1862. Murger's work presented three main starving artist types: the undiscovered artists who would often die in poverty as they thought discovery would come to them without their own pursuit of it, the paid bourgeoisie workers who lived the bohemian lifestyle for its romantic appeal, and the working artists without much money, but with a lot of ambition, who could survive well whether they became rich or stayed poor.

Jonathan Larson's 1996 rock musical Rent was inspired by Murger's play and the Puccini opera, La Boheme, based on Murger's play. Larson included modern artistic counterculture in Rent with subject matter about drugs, AIDS, and homosexual relationships. Rent is set in the East Village area of New York and is about the starving artist lives of idealist youth, some of whom are HIV positive, struggling to earn a living from their art. The young artists embody the Bohemian/bohemian philosophy of living each day one at a time and striving to make their short lives purposeful through the expression of their artistic passions.

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Discussion Comments
By anon21612 — On Nov 18, 2008

I think it should be included that living the Bohemian life is the best way to live. Dedication to art should surpass the desire for wealth. It is more important to live a happy life than one in which people cannot be happy due to the circumstances that they find themselves.

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