Top 10 Now Famous Artists Who Died Poor and Unknown


Few true artists pursue their passion with the goal of being famous; however, the importance of having your work read or experienced by the public is of great importance. The greater the audience one’s work reaches, the greater impact the artist can have on thought and the public’s opinion. Seminal artists have the ability to evoke the emotions and feelings of others and sometimes even change the way they look at the world. Having one’s work known and experienced is of utmost importance to an artist, and that’s why their relative anonymity of our list of artists before their death is heartbreaking. Here are our top ten list of artists who died underappreciated and poor.

10. El Greco

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Domenikos Theotokopoulos was nicknamed “El Greco” after working as an icon painter in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in Italy and Spain. His nickname came from his origins, born on the island of Crete. El Greco left his homeland to study western style painting in Venice. There he was influenced by “the likes of Titian and Tintoretto embracing their style of rich colors and free, sketchy manner of painting.” Another major influence was the works of Michelangelo who introduced and developed a mannerist style in which realistic portrayals of the physical world were disregarded in favor of a more subjective view. Despite Michalengelo’s clear influence on his work, El Greco would say, “Michelangelo was a good man, but did not know how to paint.” His dismissive views on the Italian icon would cause problems for El Greco in Rome. He would fail to win any major commissions in Italy and was forced to move again to Spain. It was the central town of Toledo, Spain where El Greco produced his most famous works. However, even his success in Spain would come with hardship. El Greco won several commissions in Toledo: the Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. However, the king did not like these works and placed the St Maurice altarpiece in the chapter-house rather than the intended chapel. He gave no further commissions to El Greco, and while the exact reasons for the king’s dissatisfaction remain unclear, some scholars argue that Philip did not like the inclusion of living persons in a religious scene. Others claim that El Greco’s works violated a basic rule of the Counter-Reformation – the image in the content was paramount rather than the style. He did not die a poor man by any means, but his legacy following his death was of great disdain by critics. It was not until the 18th century when his work was fully re-examined that he began to get the credit that he deserved.

9. Emily Dickinson

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An example of the backwards nature of the time hurting an artist is the case of Emily Dickinson. Although Dickinson produced a great number of works in private, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Additionally, the poems that were published during her lifetime were altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.

Known as an eccentric, some suggest that it was through her own volition that her voluminous collections of poems were kept away from the public until after her death. Dickinson was known for her reluctance to greet guests or even leave her bedroom. It got to the point where many of her friendships continued simply by letter correspondence. Her great talent however cannot be denied and neither can her novel style.

Dickinson’s poems contained short lines while often using slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. In her letters to friends, the themes of death and immortality constantly occurred which seemed to translate to her poems. Emily Dickinson died in 1886 after a series of deaths shook her family.

It must not have come as too much of a surprise, to the friends that knew her best, when in 1886 Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her collection of poems revealing the great cache of works to the public.

Emily Dickinson’s first collection of poetry was published in 1890, and after initially meeting criticism, her works firmly place her amongst the best American poets.

8. Claude Monet

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One of the most tragic cases on our list goes to the founder of French Impressionism: Claude Monet. The great works that now don hallways and mantelpieces around the world were first deemed to be “formless, unfinished and ugly.” As a result, Monet and his family were forced to experience abject poverty for much of their lives.

The form and technique that he developed created a sense of atmospheric light with his depictions of landscape scenes in a particular moment. He would go on to say, “a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life.” His seminal work “Impression, Sunrise” coined the new school, but it was not until the 1880s that his works began selling, nearly a decade after creating his best works. Even the modicum success came with detractors as many painters accused him of commercialism. Claude Monet would eventually go partially blind with his paintings consisting of great bursts of color without any particular shape

7. Johann Sebastian Bach

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One of the most unique cases on our list presents a situation where an artist was accepted for one talent but not another. Even the most ardent opponent of classical music would be hard pressed to say that Johann Sebastian Bach was not at least a talented composer. However, during his lifetime, Bach was successful as an organist while his works as a composer were widely disregarded. Born into a musical German family, Bach learned multiple instruments with his brother serving as a great guide and mentor after his parents’ early death.

Bach would earn several appointments as an organist and was intimately involved in the musical scene, even winning acclaim for his work, but somehow his work as a composer continued to go unrecognized. Bach would die as a great organist and it was not until a revival of interest in the Baroquean period during the early 19th Century that his musical compositions finally came to light. His legacy now credits him with bringing Baroque music to its pinnacle by adapting the style and making it his own. Bach managed to bring in musical elements from Italy and France enriching his German style. While it took some time, Johann Sebastian Bach has now had his worked listened to on all corners of the planet, which is ultimately what every artist wants.

6. Franz Kafka

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“I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy.”

Franz Kafka had a truly unique way of looking and experiencing the internal and external world. Like many artists, Kafka’s writing was largely the result of his experiences. Kafka had a difficult relationship with his domineering and strict father, and his mother worked long hours which left the young Kafka alone with servants and maids for much of his youth. He managed to succeed in school, studying law, but eventually settled as an insurance officer. The long hours greatly upset Kafka and he quit his job to give himself more time to write. Further embarrassing his father, Kafka would quickly accept a job in investigating worker’s compensation inquiries and would soon die at the young age of 40. Franz Kafka would die a complete unknown (without a single work published), and if it wasn’t for some good fortune he may have stayed one.

Dying of starvation brought on by tuberculosis, a feeble Kafka asked his close friend to burn all of his works when he died. His friend’s refusal has gifted us the great works like “The Trial” and has led to the creation of the term “Kafkaesque.”

5. Henry David Thoreau

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While Henry David Thoreau was certainly too busy with his own musings to pay much attention to the public’s view of him, it’s disappointing that such a great thinker and influencer of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi would be so poorly received. It would be an understatement to say that Thoreau was not widely known or read during his own time. The nature of his works and his social activism made him an outsider in most communities. That did not matter to Thoreau, who enjoyed the company of nature the most which was the theme for the now widely read work: Walden. However life was difficult for the writer, as he could not find a publisher for many of this works, and in one case took money out of his own pocket to publish, ultimately only selling a fraction of those that he printed.

Thoreau died having only published two of his works which were not even well-received by the larger public. For all of his life Henry David Thoreau was an unknown in the literary world and now he is a titan with works like “Civil Disobedience” serving as an inspiration for great leaders, while his meditations on nature calling artists and thinkers to reevaluate the importance of nature and the simple things in life.

4. Johannes Vermeer

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The artist on our list that had the longest wait after death to have his work recognized was Johannes Vermeer. Born in Holland, little was known of the early life of Johannes Vermeer for some time. He was baptized in 1632 and was the son of an art dealer. When Vermeer’s father died, he took over the family art business. It is unknown whether he apprenticed as an artist or whether simply his experience around the business allowed him to study the techniques and forms of others. Nonetheless, Vermeer began producing his own work, but was never commissioned by the church or the nobility. Instead, Vermeer’s genre of painting was catered to the provincial middle class, and consequently in 1675 Vermeer borrowed money in Amsterdam, using his mother-in-law as a co-signer. Sure enough, he was unable to pay back the loan because of a lack of sales and left his family in debt.

Johann Vermeer’s paintings were overlooked by art historians for two centuries after his death. And while a select number of connoisseurs in the Netherlands did appreciate his work, sadly many of his works were misattributed to better-known artists such as Metsu or Mieris. If it was not for German museum director Gustav Waagen who saw “The Art of Painting” in the Czernin gallery, Vermeer may have never been given credit for his work. The respective painting had been attributed to Pieter de Hoch at the time which led to further research being done and the creation of a catalogue of his work. Vermeer would go on to inspire many other painters and artists with the likes of Salvador Dali painting his own versions of Vermeer’s work.

3. Edgar Allan Poe

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The dark nature of most of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poetry is truly a reflection of his troubled and painful life. Born in 1809 to Elizabeth and David Poe – traveling actors, the young Poe would see his father abandon the family and his mother die of tuberculosis. Soon after, his father would die as well. Death seemed to follow Poe, with his brother’s death serving as the catalyst for his career as a writer. However, he found it extremely difficult to survive as a writer with the lack of international copyright law. Another cause of pain in his life would come from the marriage of his cousin, Virginia. Edgar Allan Poe was 26 and she was only 13, but she would die a mere four years later, also of tuberculosis. Her death seemed to have a profound effect on the writer. His pain and anguish was evident in the highly successful poem “The Raven,” which chronicled a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, following the man’s fall into madness. Despite the poem’s success, Poe was only paid $9 for its publication.

Edgar Allan Poe would die after unsuccessful attempts to start a journal, with his alcohol issues and troubles becoming fully apparent for those who knew him. He would be found unconscious in a Baltimore gutter and pronounced dead by unknown causes.

2. Herman Melville

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The author of one most beloved books of the 20th century saw failure after failure after the initial success of his debut work. Ironically, it was only his first book “Typee,” inspired by his experiences in the Polynesian Islands, that seemed to generate some appeal by his contemporaries while his best works would languish away accumulating dust. Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was out of print at the time of his death and his other novels did not receive great reviews nor did they provide financial security. Sadly, Melville was forced into going on the lecture circuit, which was lucrative at the time, while still managing to continue his writing through the poetic form. Melville died at his home in New York City with some accounts stating that the obituary misspelling his name. With the rediscovery of his works, Herman Melville’s name will live on forever.

1. Vincent Van Gogh

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It’s amazing that a name that is now synonymous with art could have only sold a single painting during his lifetime. We are unaware what the origins of Van Gogh’s mental illness were, but the struggles and pressures of creating great work that would ultimately never sell must have had an impact on his psyche.

Born in 1853 in the Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh was the oldest surviving son of Anna and Theodorus van Gogh, a reformed minister. Van Gogh managed to experience other cultures with his travels to London and Paris. It was in Paris where he discovered French Impressionism, which would have such a profound impact on his artwork. After moving to the south of France, Van Gogh’s paintings began to go grow brighter, as he seemed inspired by the region’s strong color and sunlight, a stark contrast to what would be considered one of his seminal earlier works, “The Potato Eaters.” While staying in the South of France, Van Gogh produced over 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings. Vincent Van Gogh would commit suicide at the young age of 37. It is difficult to speculate on what led to his decision, but it is without question that the world lost one of its greatest artists.

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  1. I’m not trying to be mean. I did enjoy the article, but “ignominy” does not mean to be anonymous. It means “disgrace”. I couldn’t figure out why you would say these people died in ignominy until I realized there was confusion about the words meaning.