Art history is really a history of broke people. The great irony of art is that many of the world’s most famous—and most expensive—classical artworks were made my men and women who struggled to pay their rent each month. Even Monet, everyone and their grandma’s favorite artist, was ridiculed his entire life. Despite the decidedly bourgeois air of his impressionist paintings, Monet and his family lived in near poverty.
While the starving artist persona is old news, the starving art girl is not. Forced to cut their teeth with years of minimum wage jobs and unpaid internships, many art world workers are just as broke as the most starving of artists.
There’s a limited to what each person can singlehandedly do to change the system (if you’re reading this, pay your interns!), but we can at least offset some of the pain of a tiny paycheck through the medium we know best: classical artworks.
As the annoying but true proverb goes, if you can’t change your situation, change your attitude. With that in mind, check out 15 classical artworks that’ll help you turn “broke” into “abundant”—at least in your own mind.
1) Workers, Pierre Bonnard (c. 1916 – 1920)
On the surface, Workers is a pretty straightforward glorification of the working class. Men and women go merrily about their new roles as denizens of the new, industrialized city. Oblivious to the pollution and despite their low wages, Bonnard’s workers seem content with their fate. In the background lies a clue as to why.
Behind the smog, the Seine stretches out into the dawn (or dusk?) sky, cast in a dreamy pale pink. Workers reminds us to appreciate the magic that surrounds us, even when our surroundings don’t seem all that magical. And even when our bank account has hit the negatives.
2) In Bed, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The resident artist of Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made a name (but not a fortune) for himself painting the bohemian outlays of fin-de-siècle Paris. Don’t let the fancy French “de” fool you—Toulouse-Lautrec was just as penniless as his friends van Gogh and Cezanne.
On top of his financial plight, he also suffered from chronic illnesses and disabilities. (You know you’re famous for all the wrong reasons when you have a syndrome named after you). And yet, he had enough warmth in his heart to paint this touching tribute to young, broke lovers. It’s truly a testament that the best things in life are free, coming from someone that would know.
3) Northern Lights; Study from Northern Norway, Anna Katarina Boberg
Speaking of free things, I can’t get over this stunning painting of the Northern Lights. If a company could trademark these babies, they’d be making a fat profit. Luckily for us, corporate America has yet to find a way to monetize natural phenomenon, so even broke art girls can enjoy them for free. Well, almost—just need that ticket to Iceland. I hear Norwegian Air has great discounts.
4) Landscape around Ishiyama-dera and Lake Biwa, Tosa Mitukoi
On a similar note, we have a lovely Japanese Edo period landscape. The last great painter of the Tosa school, Mitukoi had to weather a sharp downturn before securing a post as court painter. For our purposes, we can read the full moon in the scene as Mitukoi’s subtle reminder of the cyclical nature of all things. Just like the moon waxes and wanes each month, so will your fortunes. Keep going after what you love, and the money will come—eventually.
5) Young Man and Skull, Paul Cezanne (c. 1898)
And if the money doesn’t come, Cezanne is here to remind us that it’s all going to be over in a blink, anyway. Let’s get morbid for a sec. Rich or broke, famous or unknown, we’re all headed in the same direction, as this dapper young man is clearly pondering. The memento mori might seem like one of the more gruesome motifs in art history, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply take it as a dose of healthy perspective, like the Buddhists, who meditate on death as a reminder to make each moment count.
6) Breton girls dancing, Paul Gauguin (1889)
On a lighter note, we have a joyful scene from another famous Paul in art history. Though his paintings tell the story of a life of lazy days in Tahiti, the reality wasn’t so sunny. Penniless and alone, Gauguin died of a heart attack in relative obscurity. But even though his biography is bleak, his life didn’t have to be. In this painting, he projects his own joie de vivre onto a gang of simple Breton girls, proving that poverty doesn’t have to be a barrier to enjoying life. Make like the Breton girls and remember to make time for joy, laughter, and yes, twirling, no matter the state of your bank account.
7) The Poet, or Half Past Three, Marc Chagall (1911-12)
A feast of primary colors, Chagall’s The Poet, or Half Past Three paints a portrait of an artist happily at work. Nothing about this scene screams abject poverty, but nothing screams luxury, either. Though he traveled far and wide, Chagall kept a special place in his heart—and in his work—for his beloved village and its people.
Spurning the lux Paris lifestyle of the haute bohème, he chose to paint the artist surrounded by the same traditional motifs that decorate his village scenes: goats and flowers float freely. Let this painting be a reminder to enjoy the simple pleasures of artistic creation and stay true to your humble roots, no matter how rich you might get one day.
8) In the Studio, Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)
This realistic scene by Ukrainian artist Marie Bashkirtseff serves as an even more poignant reminder of a time when the mere act of being a woman artist was a controversial statement. Next time you’re moaning and groaning that you can’t afford a daily matcha latte, remember that your vocation is a privilege.
9) Melancholy, Marie Bracquemond
Another Marie, a French one this time, is here to remind us that even rich people get sad sometimes. Despite her silky robes and fancy hairdo, this young lady is clearly having a rough time. Cliché but true: money doesn’t buy happiness. (But it does buy that Michael Harding Genuine Chinese Vermilion).
10) Russian Peasant, David Burliuk (1928)
On the other hand, even poor people can be happy. David Burliuk’s Russian peasant woman is a picture of serenity, the dove in her hands signaling peace and hope. Keeping in mind that in the early days of the Soviet Union, artists had it in their interests to glorify the simple country folk, whose days were full of backbreaking labor, this strikingly contemporary picture can still teach us a lesson in contentment.
11) Peasant Couple Dancing, Albrecht Durer (1514)
In other news, though the upper class might get the fancy champagne, it’s the peasants who know how to party. Is there a scene in Gossip Girl where the characters have this much fun at one of their galas? No.
12) Enclosed Field with Peasant, Vincent van Gogh (1889)
No stranger to poverty, van Gogh does a beautiful job of transcending the drudgery of agricultural labor without minimizing it. The vastness of the space makes it clear that the peasant has spend the day toiling to reap the field behind him, and has plenty more ahead of him. But while the man is hard at work, he needs only to lift his head to soak up the stunning scene that van Gogh captured in his signature, swirling strokes.
It’s a perfect parallel to the unpaid gallery intern, every bit as broke as this peasant man. Just like him, you have the choice of losing yourself in the drudgery of your work and grumbling about the low payoff, or lifting your head and taking in the view—in your case, some lovely artwork. And isn’t that why you got into this in the first place?
13) Modern Bohème, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
In case you’re not buying the “poverty is bliss” thread (if van Gogh lived in NYC in 2019, he probably wouldn’t either), Kirchner is here to tell us that the bohemian life isn’t a bad one. For time immemorial, starving artists have been flipping the narrative by crafting an alternative way of life outside of the shackles of oppressive polite society.
The modern bohème of 2019 might look a little different than in Kirchner’s day, but that’s no reason to leave this hallowed tradition in the past. At each reminder of something you can’t afford, embrace this mantra: “I’m not broke, I’m bohemian.” Mattress on the floor? I’m not broke, I’m bohemian. Can’t afford your $7 Starbucks order? Not broke, bohemian. (PS. Try a percolator or a French press).
14) Greed, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Next time your mom not-so-subtly hints that you should get a real job and start paying for your own phone plan, you can politely remind her that your current financial bracket is really a testament to your boundless virtue. Remember the seven deadly sins? Well, one of them is greed. If you’ve voluntarily chosen the art world path, you’re pretty much automatically off the hook for that one. One down, six to go!
15) Renunciation of Worldly Goods, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1482-1485)
Or, if you’re the spiritual type, why not reframe your broke-ness as a form of voluntary renunciation? In all the world’s major traditions, material wealth is seen as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Give up attachment to all material things, and boom—enlightenment. And if you don’t have that much to give up in the first place, it makes it that much easier.
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via WikiArt