Arts & Culture

Artists who didn't become legends until after they died

Did you know that Vincent van Gogh was considered a failure as an artist during his life? It wasn’t until decades after his death that he became an international art superstar.

And he’s not the only one. Through the centuries, there have been a number of different artists who were either under-appreciated or totally unnoticed during their lifetimes, only to gain fame and recognition posthumously. If only they could see themselves now. Here are five artists who didn’t become legends until after they died.

Vincent van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh realized that art was his calling from a very young age. However, his entire artistic existence was deeply troubled. Suffering from mental health issues, including depression, van Gogh spent significant time in a mental hospital. He was known for his erratic behavior and psychotic episodes; he famously cut his own ear off during an acute episode.

Through it all, he painted, creating an estimated 2,000 pieces of artwork in his lifetime. At the time of his suicide in 1890, he’d sold only a single painting; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that his work began to gain appreciation. Today, van Gogh paintings easily fetch millions of dollars each.

Johannes Vermeer

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Today, Johannes Vermeer is renowned for his incredible prowess with a paintbrush and is highly regarded for his beautiful work, which depicts middle-class scenes from Dutch life.

While he was able to make a living as a painter and was known locally in Delft and The Hague, he was far from prosperous. In fact, financial stresses during an economic downturn in the late 1600s that put his career at a standstill are said to have contributed to his decline in health and eventual death in 1675.

It wasn't until the 19th century that art historians would rediscover his work, bringing him to the public eye as a global superstar artist. Today, he’s regarded as a highly influential painter with works in several major museums; there’s even a museum dedicated to him in Delft.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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Today, the graphic works of Toulouse-Lautrec are seen as a symbol of the French joie de vivre: lively, creative, and full of movement. But during his lifetime, his work was not widely known or appreciated.

While Toulouse-Lautrec was quite talented and had a style all of his own, his subject matter and lifestyle prevented him from hitting the big time. He lived in brothels and painted the nightlife and prostitutes. While he was commissioned to create what would become iconic posters for the famed Moulin Rouge club, he received little respect as an artist.

Following his death in 1901 at the age of 36, his mother worked with his art dealer to bring his work to the public eye, getting it spots in museums. His work gained traction and value. These days, his works can fetch upwards of $20 million.

Henry Darger

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Today, Henry Darger is viewed as an influential and famous outsider artist. However, during his lifetime, he received little recognition. Self-taught as an artist and writer, he created fantasy stories illustrated with whimsical watercolor illustrations. But given the fact that he was quite reclusive and worked as a janitor, it never really hit the public eye.

However, shortly before his death, his landlords discovered his art and recognized its merit. Having connections to the art world, they were able to bring the art to the public eye and to greater appreciation.

Paul Gauguin

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Originally a stockbroker, Gauguin began painting as a hobby. After a painting was accepted into the Salon of 1876, an important show in Paris, he gained entree into the inner circle of impressionists and eventually ditched the financial industry all together.

As he began to devote himself to his art, he sought escape from everyday life, seeking adventure and painting inspiration in far-flung destinations such as Tahiti. Unfortunately, what went on to become his most famous works were little appreciated back in Paris.

Eventually, Gauguin relocated permanently to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he died almost penniless. It wasn’t until well after his death that his incredible composition and use of color were recognized, and today he is considered a prominent figure within the symbolist art movement.

Posthumous legends

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Many artists don’t get the recognition they deserve until after their death, and few reach financial success. But since when did art become focused on commerce? These artists are legends in their own right and deserve acknowledgement, regardless of how they were perceived in their time.