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Starving in a garret

Posted by Lewis on September 24, 2007

In Reply to: Starving in a garret posted by Victoria S Dennis on September 20, 2007

: : Who coined the phrase 'starving in a garret', which is routinely used with reference to artists?

: An English writer called Samuel Foote (1720-1777) who summarised the life of an author as "Born in a cellar.and living in a garret". Note that he was talking about writers, not painters. In the 18th century the figure of the literary man living in poverty because his ideas were too unfashionable or politically unsafe to sell well was a familiar cliché; but in that period the painter was seen as a craftsman who by definition worked for the rich, and therefore should make a comfortable living if he were any good. The idea of the painter as a rebel genius who is poor because he only paints what inspires him and refuses to prostitute his gift by painting pictures people want to buy, is a creation of 19th-century Romanticism.

: I don't know at what date the cliché came to be "starving" rather than just "living", but my money would be on the second half of the 19th century. In the 18th century everyone knew that people only lived in garrets if they were too poor to afford anything better; after the Romantics had made the idea of a delightfully bohemian life in a garret fashionable (in theory and in novels, at any rate), it became necessary to stress the idea of poverty. (VSD)

I think there were one or two well-known paintings of garret life - "Death of Chatterton" by Wallis comes to mind.


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