Arts & CultureHistory

5 masterful painters forgotten by history

On any given day at the Louvre, you would find yourself lost in a crowd to observe the "Mona Lisa" only to remark how small it is. Yet her tiny portrait overshadows countless legacies in the pages of art history. The following five artists can count themselves among that list.

Juan Gris

Photo of an abstract cubist style painting by Juan Gris
Credit: Everett - Art/ Shutterstock

Juan Gris was a cubist painter whose legacy was overshadowed by his friend and contemporary Pablo Picasso. Gris training started his training in mechanical drawing before he studied painting under José Maria Carbonero in Madrid in 1904. In 1906 he moved to Paris, where he met Picasso among other famous painters before he began his own serious foray into the arts in 1910.

The influence of the Parisian art scene sparked a transition in Gris from his earlier Art Nouveau style to abstract analysis of form and cubism. Gris’ foundation in drafting and engineering lent itself to a more theoretical approach than that of his contemporaries, which led to systematization of cubist innovations that would make them more comprehensible. His work was fundamental in spreading the school of Cubist art.

Alfred H. Maurer

Photo of an abstract painting by Alfred H. Maurer
Credit: Alfred Maurer/ Public Domain

Whereas Gris faded into the background of his more prolific contemporaries, Alfred H. Maurer worked in obscurity ahead of trends in his time. Born in New York in 1868, Maurer received his early training from sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward and William Merritt Chase. Shortly afterwards, he left for Paris to experience a transformation in his approach to art. After leaving academia, Maurer joined other artists and trained himself with visits to the Louvre. Maurer adopted modernist styles that brought him to the attention of the art world with his 1901 painting “An Arrangement.”

However, around 1905 he began to venture further into the abstract with cubism and fauvism, a trend that only intensified throughout his work. Though Maurer is highly regarded today, his work was unfashionable and never well-received during his lifetime. Further compounding his plight, Maurer’s father was a staunch traditionalist in art. Maurer hung himself at the age of 65 in 1932, several weeks after his father died.

Anne Vallayer-Coster

Photo of a still-life painting depicting old armer and a bust by Anne Vallayer-Coster
Credit: Anne Vallayer-Coster/ Public Domain

Still-life painter, child prodigy, and personal favorite of none other than Marie Antoinette, Anne Vallayer-Coster led a tumultuous life in spite of her discreet and industrious disposition. With little professional training, Vallayer-Coster was unanimously accepted into the Royal Académie in 1770 after submitting two of her still-lifes. She was one of only four women in her time to be accepted into the institution.

In 1775, she exhibited her first floral still-life, influenced by her early exposure to botany, and gained the patronage of Marie Antoinette. This patronage proved an ill-fated boon, as much of Vallayer-Coster’s subsequent work immersed itself in the opulence of French aristocracy, and quickly fell out of favor in the wake of the French Revolution. As it would be, the tide of history washed much of her notoriety from its pages.

Leonora Carrington

Photo of a dark surrealist sculpture by Leonora Carrington
Credit: Barna Tanko/ Shutterstock

Though born in Britain, Leonora Carrington spent most of her life in Mexico. Her titles included painter, novelist, sculptor, and political activist.

During her formative years in Britain, she was expelled from two separate schools for rebellious behavior, which she would proudly carry into adult life as a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico throughout the 1970s. Her exposure to the arts was marked by early influences in Surrealism, which were propelled by her relationship with Max Ernst. The two artists met at a party in London and later moved to Paris in the wake of Ernst’s separation from his wife.

Though the work that Carrington created together with Ernst was not her first foray into surrealism, it shaped the trajectory of her body of work. Ernst was imprisoned by the Gestapo during the invasion of France for degenerate art, and Carrington was devastated, fleeing to Spain and breaking down shortly after. Her mental breakdown led to further traumatic institutionalization before she eventually married a Mexican diplomat (and friend of Pablo Picasso), as a way to receive diplomatic immunity.

She divorced the diplomat and settled in Mexico City, where she spent the rest of her life. Her work explodes from the canvas like fever dreams from the asylum, erotic waves on distant shores, and the sociopolitical turmoil of her life. She was the last living surrealist before her death at the age of 94 in 2011.

Rachel Ruysch

Photo of a still-life painting of a bouquet of flowers with insects crawling on them by Rachel Ruysch
Credit: Rachel Ruysch/ Public Domain

Rachel Ruysch is an oddity on the list. She enjoyed a long, successful career during her time, being credited as one of the best documented female painters of the Dutch Golden age but nonetheless finds little mention in art history circles. Ruysch was born in the Northern Netherlands in 1664, the daughter of a scientist. Her father’s collection of anatomical artifacts, botany samples, and minerals were her earliest art references, leading to work defined by intricate and systemic detail of her subjects. She painted baroque floral portraits.

A place in time

Photo a painting of people walking through Paris with umbrellas
Credit: lisima/ Shutterstock

The renown of history’s masters often finds itself subject to the whims of fate. Gris and Maurer found the notoriety of their work pitted against opposite sides of contemporary trends, whereas Vallayer-Coster and Carrington found their work in the heat of political change. Other times, the absence of legacy is shrouded in mystery as is the case with Ruysch. Even in the face of historic mastery, forces out of any individual’s control will dictate the impact of his or her work.