“The Last Leaf” is set in Greenwich Village, a bohemian neighborhood in New York City famous as a gathering place for writers and artists. Sue, Johnsy, and Behrman have moved to this neighborhood because it’s cheap and vibrant, but poor conditions in the impoverished areas of the city in this period—which included overcrowding, cold weather, and lack of sanitation—meant that deadly illnesses could spread quickly. In the story, an outbreak of pneumonia makes Johnsy seriously ill and ultimately kills Behrman. Despite the adversities of poverty, alcoholism, and disease, however, all three characters have made the decision to accept these hardships in order to pursue their art and produce what Behrman calls a “masterpiece.”
Sue, Johnsy, and Behrman attempt to make a living by painting, but can barely make ends meet. “I can sell the editor man [my picture], and buy port wine…and pork chops,” Sue tells Johnsy, suggesting that food is hard to come by. Similarly, after decades of work as an artist, Behrman only makes a small income as an artist’s model and has become an alcoholic. The narrator asserts that many other inhabitants of Greenwich Village share their predicament: indeed, he suggests that the neighborhood is a gathering place for artists not only because of the cheap rent, but because the winding, maze-like streets make it difficult for their creditors to find them. Thus, the story’s three main characters are living the quintessential life of a starving artist.
These three characters weather adversity because they are committed to an artistic project, even if that project seems like a distant dream. Johnsy wants to paint the Bay of Naples, but her poverty and poor health make a trip to Italy seem implausible. Sue labors over a single painting throughout the story, working “through most of the night.” Although Behrman is over sixty, he has had little success. He is obsessed with painting a single great picture—which he terms his “masterpiece”—but he hasn’t started it yet. For each of these characters, the promise of eventual success keeps them going, and it’s when Johnsy forgets her desire to paint the Bay of Naples that she loses her desire to live.
At the end of the story, Behrman does paint his “masterpiece”—the illusion of a leaf painted on the wall outside Johnsy’s window. After he has completed this great work—the one he has struggled for all his life—Behrman succumbs to pneumonia, suggesting that the promise of a masterpiece had been his only motivating force. It’s significant that he produced this masterpiece after decades of solitary struggle—it’s ultimately his desire to help his neighbors inspires him to produce a great work of art. “The Last Leaf” suggests, then, that even starving artists rely on the social bonds of their neighborhood: Behrman models for Sue, he is inspired by Johnsy, and from Behrman’s masterpiece Johnsy regains her will to live, primarily because she remembers her own desire to make great art. Painting a masterpiece is not simply a matter of technical accomplishment, then. Art, the narrator suggests, is a communal project.
The “Starving Artist” and the “Masterpiece” ThemeTracker
The “Starving Artist” and the “Masterpiece” Quotes in The Last Leaf
One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the table d'hote of an Eighth Street “Delmonico’s,” and found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.
After the doctor had gone Sue went into the workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into Johnsy’s room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime… She arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a magazine story. Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature.
Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress's robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it…He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece.
The janitor found him on the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and—look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman's masterpiece—he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.