Alright, so the world has seen its reasonable share of successful painters. From Picasso to Pollack, once in a while the art world does seem to hatch its own strange breed of living, breathing celebrity. But the evidence suggests that most brilliant painters face a higher risk of dying alone, sick and utterly destitute. Come to think of it, the rich painters end up looking a lot like the ones who die poor… They’re usually heavy drinkers, slaves to various vices, eccentrics, unstable, and often utterly depressed. But the ones who actually get to live the luxury of prehumous – as opposed to posthumous – fame might have enjoyed a cheery modifier attached to those conditions, thanks to their wealth and status: Jackson Pollack was a roaring drunk! (van Gogh was just a drunk). Andy Warhol was a man with bizarre, eccentric charms (Gauguin was just bizarre and eccentric in his time, and he abandoned his family to pursue a career in painting—for shame!).
These are, of course, whimsical generalizations. But art historians tend to note the startling frequency of extraordinarily talented painters who spend their entire lives swimming up the stream of rejection only to receive worldwide renown after their death. And, similarly, it wouldn’t be revolutionary to state that maybe these artists’ unseemly existence infused their work with a certain “lucrative” sense of tragedy, one that would someday charm bigwigs the world over to write checks the size of small cities to claim their work for their own – to the gain of many an estate and art establishment.
But really, these artists’ works belong to no one and everyone. Down to the brushstrokes, the images these painters depicted have long ascended to the collective conscience of history, leaking inspiration into the hearts and minds of every budding artist. If we measured success by contribution or legacy, many of the characters on this list would qualify as the most successful artists the world has ever seen. But the world didn’t recognize them as such until years – in some cases centuries – after they shuffled off this mortal coil.
The mad and rebellious, the tormented and tortured, the drinkers of all things alcoholic and turpentine, and the simply misunderstood—the struggles of these 10 artists have left the world in awe of the mythos, the majesty, and the money they never realized in their lifetime.
10. “El Greco”- $15.2 million
Doménikos Theotokópoulos wasn’t exactly a vagrant. Born to a wealthy family in Crete, he actually received several major commissions for religious institutions during his career in late 16th century Spain, and received some praise in his lifetime. But “the Greek” was just too much of a damned rebel; he hated those boring Renaissance standards of precise measurements and pedestrian proportions. To him, art was about imperfection and exaggeration – so much so that he had the nerve to tell the world Michelangelo couldn’t paint (he offered to redo the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel). As you can imagine, most people criticized El Greco as odd, ridiculous and—a big one in the 16th century—“worthy of scorn!”. His commissions often failed to please his commissioners, and so he left behind a tarnished reputation by the end of his life. His ideas went all but unnoticed until the late 18th century, when Romanticism followed in El Greco’s steps by re-evaluating the rational principles of the baroque period. His paintings St. Dominic in Prayer and Christ on the Cross sold for the equivalent of $15.2 million and $5.6 million US dollars respectively, at a private auction just last year.
9. Paul Gauguin- $40.3 million
At 23 Gauguin was a successful businessman selling tarpaulins. Thirteen years later, he was a successful married-with-children businessman selling tarpaulins. A year after that, he was a miserable drunk painter slumming in Paris. At some point, Gauguin apparently decided that he despised the Bourgeois sensibilities of industrial Europe and all the baggage (like family and work) that came with it, and instead became drawn to the culture of French Polynesia. He pursued on-and-off travels to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands where he would eventually move permanently and overdose on morphine at only 54—ill, in debt, and awaiting a short prison sentence. A leading force behind the modernist art movement, Gauguin the artist gained serious recognition just years after his death in 1903. His experimental post-impressionist works of exotic Polynesian scenes, marked by unnatural colours and vivid distortions, inspired some of the more well-known greats like Picasso. Gauguin the man, however, left a legacy of a wild lifestyle marked by alcohol, questionable sexcapades and for a brief time, an “earie” (more on that later) relationship with none other than Vincent van Gogh. While Gauguin relied on a famous art dealer for cash before he died in 1903, his painting The Man with an Axe sold for $40.3 million at a private New York Auction 103 years later.
8. Wang Meng- $62.1 million
Wang Meng’s sprawling mountainscapes had an undeniable influence on Chinese fine art in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Meng was, then, the least-famous of four “Masters” of the 14th century Yuan Dynasty: A period of socio-political upheaval against the Mongol rulers in southeast China underpins this artist’s mythology. We don’t know much about the man himself, but historians place him as an intellectual involved in the rebel administration of the 1360s, struggling between his art and huge pressures of political loyalty throughout his life. Following the Mongols’ fall in 1368, the Ming dynasty was born under the mighty Hongwu Emperor. As politics became tense and paranoid, Meng met the fate of numerous Chinese literati: He was imprisoned until his death in 1385, for visiting a suspected plotter of the emperor’s assassination. Though not overtly political, his scrolls contain equal parts historical value and beauty for collectors today; especially one anonymous collector who dished out $62.1 million for Meng’s Zichuan Resettlement in 2011.
7. Thomas Eakins- $68 million
Thomas Eakins really enjoyed painting nudes; he enjoyed it so much he made it his life’s work, and got fired from his esteemed teaching position for refusing to tone it down. Eakins is the American realist painter; too real, in fact, for his time in late 19th century Victorian Philadelphia. His reputation was also something of a problem, as is to be expected from anyone so passionate and uncompromising about what they do. He lost his esteemed teaching position after removing a male model’s loincloth in class to make a certain point about the pelvis. We might say it’s a noble form of art —nudes are sort of a staple in art class nowadays anyway—but, well, this was a different time and place. Eakins did get some recognition in his latter years, but it wasn’t until a year after his death in 1916 that the honours started rolling in. The National Gallery of Washington bought his painting The Gross Clinic for $68 million in 2006.
6. Amedeo Modigliani- $68.9 million
If there was ever a committee of poor vagrant artists, Modigliani should’ve certainly been the head. The man galloped into the world on a horse of degeneracy, and rode it straight to his death. Modigliani’s family was so poor that, thanks to ancient Italian maternity laws, his birth saved them from having most of their assets seized by the 19th century Tuscan government. But Modigliani muscled his way through various art circles in Italy and France, and cultivated his own rebellious avant-garde style of modernism that tested the boundaries of geometry and the surreal. In his short life, he painted, drank absinthe, sketched, smoked hashish, and sculpted with heroic dedication, growing stranger and less conducive to city life with age; a bona-fide bohemian, who stuck out even among the worst of them; reports of his getting righteously plastered and stripping naked at social gatherings abound. As his decorum failed with age, so did his health. But there’s a subdued sense of tragedy to Modigliani, who died broke in the last phases of tubercular meningitis at 35, holding onto his beautiful, nearly nine-month pregnant common-law wife, who jumped from five stories the next day. Perhaps that’s why 9 books, 3 movies, a play, and a documentary have since been made about the man’s life, and why his Nude Sitting on a Divan fetched $68.9 million at a New York auction in 2010.
5. Seurat- Estimated $100 million
Everyone knows that one Seurat painting—you know the one with all the people lazing on a grassy slope, looking out to water, and women with parasols, made completely out of dots? Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has become so iconic that the original, currently hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, has an estimated value of $100 million. We have a hunch that given the chance, a wealthy collector would snap that up in seconds, considering a mere study of that same painting sold for $35.2 million in 1999. The pioneering pointillist masterpiece utterly bent artists’ ideas of colour and impression, and preceded entirely new developments in modern art. But in late 19th century France, Seurat’s influence was mostly overlooked. After overcoming years of rejection, he eventually found some modest success in exhibitions alongside works of Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne (spoiler: all of them died unsuccessful), but he remained a modest man with modest means and a modest living, as he saw fit. Unlike his compatriots, he refrained from alcohol and anything that he thought would tamper with his art-making. He lived a quiet, sleepy, reclusive life, until he died from an uncertain combination of illnesses in 1891.
4. Willem de Kooning- $137.5 million
Who is Willem de Kooning? The short answer, is he’s the man behind the 3rd most expensive painting ever sold. Another short, but more fascinating answer is that he’s a leading Dutch-American artist of the abstract expressionist movement, who famously told his disciples: “It is disastrous to name ourselves.” De Kooning would probably hate us for giving a name to his style, then, but he was a master at combining separate, sometimes conflicting ideologies of modernism into a chaotic pastiche of style meant to evoke emotion-by-any-means-necessary. Like Jackson Pollock, de Kooning’s work is wildly shrouded and noisy. But form is ever-present, as in the Woman III that, like an expensive trading card, Hollywood mogul David Geffen sold to hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million in 2006. That might leave a sour taste in your mouth once you learn that de Kooning was at times too poor to buy himself artist’s paint and had to rely on household enamels – the kind you might use to weatherproof wood – in his early career. But de Kooning is an anomaly in this list, because he actually became highly prolific in his heyday, if still deep in the throes of alcoholism and extramarital affairs (which, many argue, contributed to his eventual dementia, Alzheimer’s, and artistic decline). He died quietly in 1997, aged 92.
3. Vermeer- Estimated $200 million
Wanted: Two men disguised as Boston police officers who walked out of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the night of March 18, 1990, carrying, among other things, Vermeer’s The Concert: estimated value $200,000,000. With only 36 known paintings, it’s not hard to see why a Vermeer could fetch so much money (and the theft doesn’t exactly hurt the value, either). But Vermeer’s largely shrouded history in 17th century Netherlands also lends to the allure. We know he eventually came to work for his local artistic guild in the city of Delft, but failed to gain recognition outside of it. The tragedy of Vermeer’s life—of the times, really—came near the end; after a French invasion in 1672, the suffering Dutch economy left Vermeer hopelessly in debt. With his physical and mental health rapidly deteriorating, he died in an unknown frenzy (likely a stroke or heart attack) at the young age of 43. With the most valuable Vermeer currently M.I.A., it sadly has to abdicate the official thrown to Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, which fetched “only” $42 million in a 2004 auction.
2. Paul Cezanne: $259 million
The man Pablo Picasso called “my one and only master!” spent most his life caught between two worlds, and never felt at home in either of them. His father encouraged him to be a lawyer, or banker like himself, but Cezanne saw himself as a famous painter like those bohemians living on the edge in Paris. But Cezanne was no banker, and Cezanne wasn’t exactly a bohemian either —he just wanted to explore optical phenomena by extracting the underlying forms of the visual and rendering the human figure. So there we have Cezanne in the 1870s: moving to Paris, then back home to Aix-en-Provence, then back to Paris; painting until his frustrations got the better of him, then returning to work to please his father until the blues led him back to paint again. But this struggle at least came with the financial freedom many of his fellow painters couldn’t attain, with a big inheritance at the age of 47. Still, money was strictly the means for Cezanne – the end, as far as he knew, was never attained. Receiving some of the harshest criticism of the impressionists of the time, he left most of his works unfinished and potentially destroyed others before he died of pneumonia in 1906. Little did he know that his posthumous success would see his painting The Card Players bought by the State of Qatar in 2011 for $259,000,000—the most expensive painting of all time.
1. Vincent van Gogh: $670,000,000+ sales
How do we paint the portrait van Gogh deserves in so few words? Virtually everything we know about him comes from letters to friends and family; anyone curious enough to read them might be taken aback by his gentle, childlike disposition – in contrast to his infamous insanity so legendary that modern medical journals, in a game of diagnose-the-dead, continue to publish inquiries into his mindset (not limited to mixtures of epilepsy, hallucinatory psychosis, and schizophrenia).
To the locals of Arles, France, van Gogh was just the ugly, unclean vagrant who occupied the yellow house around the corner, prone to stumbling into cafes and whorehouses at unseemly hours on an absinthe binge. Even Paul Gauguin—his roommate at the time—had to abandon him after a bizarre quarrel which, somehow, resulted in van Gogh’s self-severed ear causing a stir at a nearby whorehouse. As you can guess, van Gogh spent most of his final days institutionalized. Thankfully he was allowed to keep his paint while committed (barring the times he tried to drink them). Fast forward a century or so, and the same man’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sells for $82.5 million in New York.
What’s so special about that portrait? Dr. Gachet—who tended to van Gogh in his final, post-asylum years—was one of two people who watched Vincent van Gogh die two days after shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun. Van Gogh died just five months after he’d sold his first and only painting, for the equivalent of $78 today.
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