The Starving Artist


By Victoria Chick


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Artist Victoria Chick discusses the history of the term “Starving Artist.” Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean.


The “Starving Artist” as a type of lifestyle is a phenomenon born in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and one that continued in a modified way into the 20th and 21st centuries in many countries including the United States. To understand it, a basic knowledge of historic economic sociology as well as an understanding of the need of most serious artists to place their desire to produce art as more important than anything else in their life is necessary.

To cover how this topic played out worldwide is too great a task, so this article will focus on 18th and 19th-century France because Paris was the center of the art world at that time.  The focus shifts to America to examine the “Starving Artist” phenomenon there, when the world’s art center became New York by the mid – 20th Century.

The first French Revolution in the early 18th century and the following French Revolutions resulted in the decreased economic power of all Frenchmen.  With the closure of monasteries, chapters, and cathedrals in towns like Tours, Avignon, or Bayeux, thousands were deprived of their livelihoods as servants, artisans, or tradesmen. Likewise, the execution of hundreds of nobles and the exodus from France of others devastated the luxury trades and led to still greater hardship for servants, as well as industries and supply networks dependent on consumption, aristocratic and otherwise. For those nobles who remained in France, the heated anti-aristocratic social environment dictated more modest patterns of dress and food. Along with many trades, the arts did not flourish.

The British blockade which began in 1793 had severely damaged French foreign trade. The wartime policies enacted that year by the National Convention worsened the situation by banning the export of essential goods and embargoing neutral shipping from entering French ports. Although these restrictions were lifted in 1794, the British managed to usurp transatlantic shipping lanes in the meantime, further reducing markets for French products. Almost half the population in France was engaged in agriculture, a sector whose already low-paid workers suffered even greater losses of income from a Recession.

VanGogh_Bedroom_Arles1France was economically unstable until the rule of Napoleon under whose leadership things began to improve because the currency was now backed by gold. In the cities, entrepreneurship on a small scale came back as restrictive monopolies, privileges, barriers, rules, taxes, and guilds gave way.   The distribution of the national income left workers with little extra money to spend although it kept many families from starvation.

But France continued with economic disasters. Scourges like the Great French Wine Blight, caused by the Phylloxera insect, and the parasitic disease known as Pébrine which affected silkworms and the French silk industry, made the depression of 1882 worse. The importance of wine production to the economy was such that around 37% of French GDP was lost between 1885 and 1894 due to phylloxera. Other factors contributing to the length and seriousness of the depression were the debt defaults of a number of foreign governments, railway company bankruptcies, a trade war between Italy and France between 1887 and 1898, new French tariffs on imports, and the general adoption of Protectionism throughout the world in the 19th century.

Suffice it to say the sale of art from 1789 through the Great Depression was always limited by economic factors, often exacerbated by wars even before WW I. There were brief periods when art sales increased such as the late 19th century and early 20th century mostly due to a small number of American collectors. However, these are also the years in which the term “Starving Artist” started being applied.

Traditional painting and sculpture continued to be appreciated but with limited sales. Art done in newer approaches tended to be ridiculed, ignored, and refused exhibition space in the approved venue of the French Academy. By the late 19th century, the Salon des Refuses was the answer for some of these artists to exhibit their work. Critics advised pregnant women and people with weak hearts to stay away lest the art induces an adverse physical reaction. Much of this art was produced by people we recognize as masters today. Unfortunately, few received positive recognition or monetary reward during their lifetimes.

However, artists are driven to make art by the need to create for themselves or to communicate their vision with others.   History shows dozens of examples of artists who were poorly paid, unpaid, or ignored. Some were good and some were not.  The term “Starving Artists” was first applied to these artists during the 1920s when a large segment of European and American high society ignored the reality of the poor economy and the rumblings of war, and distracted itself in alcohol and “Fun”.

Society looked down on anyone, not like themselves, so “Starving Artist” was a derogatory term coined in the Jazz Age. Interestingly, the artists found support in themselves as they formed groups of like-minded individuals based on their artistic or political outlook. Thus we have the French Impressionists, like Monet, the Post Impressionists like Van Gogh, Cubists like Braque, Expressionists like Kirchner, Fauves like Derain, Dada artists like DuChamp and others, like Picasso, who were flexible enough to grow in various styles during their careers.

The artists in the United States had followed European styles, especially British, French, and German Realist or Romanic styles, since Colonial times. Styles that were new in France in the late 19th century were not immediately copied by American artists except for some that went to Europe to study and stayed. These would include Mary Cassat and James McNeill Whistler who were close to the French Impressionists. Most American artists did not follow European trends until a few well-known American collectors began purchasing avant-garde paintings in Paris causing the Impressionist style and other styles to become more accepted in the U.S.

But, most people ridiculed modern art and those artists that worked in modern styles did not initially sell well.

It should be remembered that few visual artists, musicians, actors, writers, or athletes ever reach the famous level even though most are quite good and many exceptional. The definition of “Starving Artist” is “an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their work”.

The downside is the value of what they create may not be recognized until years after they can have a material benefit, or it may never be recognized.  But the upside is their integrity and passion will be seen in the work they have done.   For some artists, it became a point of honor to be seen as willing to suffer for art.

By the mid -20th century American artists without dealers, wishing to boost sales even grouped together to have exhibitions they publicized as Starving Artists Shows. Hoping to capitalize on viewers’ sympathy and desire to discover a great painting at a bargain price, what was once a derogatory term has now been changed to a marketing ploy with a sense of humor.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

Cow Trail Art Studio


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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico.

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