5 World Famous Artists Who Died in Obscurity

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The words “celebrated artist” are used for those vaunted creative types who have achieved recognition and acclaim based on their prodigious talents and artistic effort. These are the rare few who manage to achieve fame and even fortune by following their passions. Sadly, some of the world’s most celebrated artists never knew their talents and effort were recognized by anyone, and certainly never came anywhere near fortune. The five artists we are discussing today died in obscurity, unaware that one day they would be ranked among the greatest achievers in their respective fields. If there is any silver lining, it is that at least their art was not lost along with them.

5 Nothing Obscure About His Beard

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Henry David Thoreau’s writing has been widely touted for decades now, but at the time of his death in 1862 he probably figured he was headed for history’s dustbin. He sold hardly any books in his lifetime, and was largely considered an oddball by his contemporaries. Thoreau may have been a bit unusual, but he was also an early abolitionist, environmentalist and an overall forward thinking writer.

4 The Man Could Play. And Sing. And Write.

Nick Drake was a singer/songwriter back before everyone who knew three guitar chords and felt a bit of angst was considered a singer/ songwriter. He died in 1974 at the age of 26 in almost total obscurity, having released two albums that were critically praised but commercially almost ignored. By the mid-1980s people were starting to learn about this wildly talented, tragically tortured young man. By the 1990s, he was rightly considered a masterful musician.

3 At Least She Had Plenty of Time to Write

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Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 2,000 poems in her five and a half decades of life, but fewer than 12 of them were published in that time. She was a famous recluse, rarely leaving her family’s home or, for long stretches, even leaving her bedroom. Overall, her life must have been one of immense loneliness and amazingly limited contact with the world, as she rarely communicated with anyone outside of her own household. She probably didn’t know that within a few decades of her death in 1886 she would be a household name.

2 In a Twist We Think He Would Have Approved

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It’s amazing, when you think about it, that the writing of Franz Kafka has become so famous and influential that his surname is now an adjective: “Kafkaesque.” The twist is that as far as Kafka knew, no one would ever even read his writing: On his deathbed, he requested that the bulk of it be burned. Fortunately for us, Kafka’s friend Max Brod disregarded the writer’s last request and instead had everything he could find published.

1 The Short Unhappy Life of Vincent Van Gogh

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New analysis of Van Gogh’s last days have made scholars start to wonder if he did indeed commit suicide, as has long been part of his legend. But what is not in doubt is that Van Gogh, one of the most famous, beloved painters of all time, died poor and all but unknown. You don’t need all the fingers of one hand to count the number of paintings he sold. To add to the tragedy of Van Gogh’s short albeit productive life is the fact that his work was just beginning to gain recognition at the time of his death. A few more years, and he may have been a living legend.

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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