Sometimes artists are ahead of their time, and their work simply isn’t as beloved or highly regarded by people during their lifetime as it is by those in the generations that follow. Artists, writers and musicians can all fall into this unfortunate phenomenon, robbing them of the credit they deserve for their genius. Here are ten great artists you’re bound to learn about during your university studies, who simply weren’t appreciated for the work they produced during their time.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890): Today, Van Gogh’s work sells for unprecedented prices and is some of the most valuable and highly sought after in the world. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million in 1990, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. In his time, however, Van Gogh was a failed, starving artist. He produced more than 2,000 works of art, but sold only two during his lifetime. Suffering with mental illness and further depressed by his lack of success, Van Gogh committed suicide at the age of 37. Van Gogh’s post-Impressionist style, filled with emotion, movement and vibrancy, was not popular during his life but would go on to influence decades of artists that followed, and his works remain some of the most highly regarded paintings in modern art.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924): Few artists ever have terms in the English language coined after them, but Kafka’s influence should be evident in the wide – and perhaps over – usage of the term “Kafkaesque.” While today he is seen as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, he enjoyed little to none of this success during his lifetime. His main income came from work as an insurance officer and later helping to operate an asbestos factory. Yet, Kafka’s true passion was writing and he eventually quit working to focus on his art. Kafka may very well have been appreciated during his time had a wider audience gotten to see his work, but the author died from starvation brought on by tuberculosis at age 40, before much of his work had been published or even finished. Kafka asked his close friend to burn all his work on his death, but luckily for the literary world, he didn’t and today people the world over can enjoy his dry humor and existential take on the world.
El Greco (1541-1614): Domenikos Theotokopoulos, or El Greco as he came to be known, wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful artist during his lifetime. Born in Crete, he studied in Rome and Venice before settling down in Toledo, Spain, where he created some of his best known paintings for the Spanish royal family. While El Greco found work and made a comfortable living as an artist, he was largely panned by art critics. The works he painted for the royal family displeased the king and dashed all hopes he had for becoming a court painter. His work was laughed at, scorned and within the larger art community, ignored. It was not until the 19th century that his work saw the attention it deserved. It became an inspiration for the artists that would push forth the Expressionist and Cubist movements, drawing inspiration from El Greco’s dramatic compositions and bizarrely elongated and distorted figures. Spanish artists of the late 19th and early 20th Century paraded his works through the streets and critics, artists and everyday people now laud his work as that of a true artistic genius and pioneer– status he never attained during his own time.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Today, even those who know little of classical music will recognize the name Bach. Yet during his lifetime, Bach was successful not as a composer of unique musical arrangements, but as a highly respected and competent organist. While he was intimately involved in music and did win acclaim for his work within it, his work as a composer largely went unrecognized, save that which involved the organ. It was not until a revival in interest in the works of the Baroque period during the early 19th Century that the true value of his musical compositions was truly appreciated. While he did not innovate a new musical style, Bach brought Baroque music to its pinnacle, adapting the style and making it his own by bringing in musical elements from Italy and France and enriching his native German style. In modern times, he is regarded as one of the greatest composers ever, and it’s hard to imagine that his work wasn’t lauded during his own period.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): It’s hard to imaging Thoreau today as a struggling writer and unappreciated artist given his widespread success and name recognition, but during his own time, Thoreau wasn’t a widely known or read author. His work, praising the importance of appreciating the natural world, preaching social activism, and peppered with symbolism and hidden meanings was unique and different and society at the time was perhaps not quite ready for it. Thoreau could not find a publisher for many of this works, and in one case took money out of his own pocket to publish, selling only a fraction of those that he printed. At the time of his death, Thoreau had published only two books which were not well-received by the larger public. While he enjoyed the support of authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was an unknown in the literary world and only received attention for his works in the 20th century. Today, his work has served as the inspiration for great leaders, artists and thinkers and is regarded as one of the greats in American literature.
John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969): An American novelist from New Orleans, Toole’s work A Confederacy of Dunces won him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. You wouldn’t think that would be a recipe for an unappreciated artist, but his work was not published nor praised until nearly 12 years after his death. Toole’s lack of success and widespread acceptance as a writer during his lifetime wasn’t from a lack of trying. He submitted his famous novel to publisher Simon & Schuster, where he was told it needed major revisions and that ultimately, it was not publishable. Distraught over his lack of success and rejection, Toole took off on a journey around the country, killing himself in a cabin in Mississippi at the age of 31. It was not until Toole’s mother brought his novel to writer Walker Percy that it was published and received the attention that it, and he, deserved.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675): Check out any art history text these days and you’re bound to see page after page dedicated to this Dutch Baroque painter. A fictional novel and a movie were made that were inspired by one of his better known works. Yet Vermeer wasn’t always the art historical star that he is today. During his lifetime, Vermeer made a respectable living as an artist, painting small genre scenes but never achieving particular wealth or widespread name recognition as an artist. His masterly treatment of light and color and careful treatment of the subjects in his work did bring him high regard in the Netherlands during his life, but upon his death he was a forgotten and obscure artist for almost two centuries. It was not until art historians Waagen and Thore-Burger published an essay on him in the 19th century that his work came to light in the larger art world. Today, the limited number of works he created (only 34) and his high level of skill make him one of the most sought-after artists in the world.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): Poe wasn’t always seen as the master of the macabre that he is today. In fact, he struggled most of his life to make a living as a writer, often making only a few dollars for the publication of some of the works that are his most famous today. Plagued by the death of his young wife, alcoholism and financial troubles, Poe moved from place to place trying to sell his work, stay out of trouble and make a life as a writer. His depression and addiction finally grew to be too much and under mysterious circumstances, Poe was found dead in an alley at the age of 40. While his work did see publication during his lifetime, it certainly didn’t see widespread success, nor was it as appreciated as it is today for its style or content. Today, Poe’s work is known the world over and he is credited with helping bring credibility to the short story, detective fiction and science fiction.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): Gauguin’s close friendship with Van Gogh should make it no surprise that the two shared a similar fate in the art world during their lifetimes. Today, we can look at Gauguin’s work as heralding in the Symbolist movement, paving the way for new artistic styles and famous painters who would come after him. Yet during his life, Gauguin was a bit of an outsider and never received widespread success for his work. Gauguin deserted a prosperous life as a stockbroker and his family to live and paint in the South Pacific. Yet Gauguin didn’t find the idealized paradise he sought out on these islands, nor the success he so desired as an artist. His work was appreciated by few and even ridiculed when presented in the Post-Impressionist exhibit of 1910 in London. It was not until the 1940s that his work saw widespread success in the marketplace and was appreciated by a larger audience. Today, his paintings rank among some of the most expensive in modern art and few critics would ridicule his work.
John Keats (1795-1821): It might be unfair to say that Keats wasn’t appreciated in his own time because his life was so short, but even while he was alive, this Romantic poet’s works weren’t especially well-received. Critics panned his work and he was recognized as a talent mainly by other poets, not a wider audience. Keats didn’t get much time to prove his talent to himself or anyone else — he died of tuberculosis at age 25, believing himself a failure. While a small circle of academics praised his work soon after his death, it was not until 1890 that he became recognized as one of the greatest Romantic poets. Today, Keats’ works are some of the most studied in English literature classes, and his life and his works have become the subject of numerous books and movies both in academic and popular culture.