Artists in their time were rarely appreciated. A few lucky ones had patrons that would sponsor them allowing them to work at their leisure, on their own special efforts. If an artist was working it was usually on a consignment basis, when they were able to get paid work, creating something for the church or a wealthy family of the day. Most artists were barely able to obtain recognition for their talents. Many of them were eccentric, dealing with addiction, physical ailments, mental illness and alcoholism. Unfortunately most of the famous artists we know today were not recognized and celebrated within their own lifetimes.
They may have sold some paintings but few achieved the state of fame that some of them did after death. They were rarely able to support themselves let alone a family. Most of the artists on this list introduced something new and were not without controversy surrounding them and their work, perhaps that’s why many struggled. Unfortunately the artists on this list died in poverty and relative obscurity. Sadly they will never see just how celebrated their art and talent became. Ironically, their paintings sell now for millions of dollars and museums and galleries from around the world fight to acquire them.
10 Jean-Honore Fragonard
Jean-Honore Fragonard was born in Grasse, Provencal in 1732 and became one of the most famous painters of the Rococo period. His family moved to France in 1738, where he was heavily influenced by the Baroque style. His art career started out promisingly enough, having attended the Ecole Royale des Eleves Protégés in Paris. Fragonard was then sent to Italy, where he spent time at the French academy in Rome. He had some success after returning to France, preferring to do private commissioned work. Some of his best known pieces were “Coresus and Callirhoe” and “The Swing”. He was well-known for his sensual and erotic style, complimented by his sense of whimsy and fantasy. Unfortunately, Fragonard was unable to adapt to the new style that eventually came into popularity over “Rococo” called “Neo-classical”. That ended his career and he died in relative obscurity and poverty in 1806.
9 James Barry
James Barry born in Ireland in 1741 was a self–taught artist. He’s best known for his six part series of paintings, “The Progress of Human Culture”. He completed these for the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1773 and taught as a Professor there from 1782 to 1799. Barry was one of the earliest of the “romantic” painters in Britain and although he died in poverty in 1806 he was thought to be the most important Irish Neoclassical artist.
8 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in France in 1864. He was a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh, even using him as a subject for his painting. Toulouse-Lautrec is considered one of the great painters of the Post-Impressionist period. He favored painting the theatrical life of Paris in the 1800’s, giving his audiences personal and provocative peeks inside the Moulin Rouge. Unfortunately, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from a variety of health issues including pycnodysostosis (a disease that causes very short brittle bones). This may have been the culprit that caused his short stature. Depression caused Toulouse-Lautrec to begin drinking and he died in poverty in 1901 from complications of alcoholism as well as syphilis.
7 Gustave C. Langenberg
Born in 1859 in Germany this painter became known as “The Painter on Horseback”. He painted many portraits including a portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, which hangs even today at the Royal Palace at The Hague. Langenberg fought in the Boer War as a member of the British Army. He painted many battle scenes of his time there. Afterward spending time in Mexico, Langenberg painted Mexican scenes including the Hill Indians and Mexican natives. Although he toured much of the world and spent time with Kings and Queens, he died alone and penniless in 1915.
6 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rembrandt was born in 1606 and he became one of the greatest painters of all time and certainly the most important in Dutch history. Historians credit him with bringing on the “Dutch Golden Age”. He was best known for his portraits. Rembrandt also painted many biblical scenes. He was credited with having great empathy into the human condition, which helped him to capture his subjects in a way no one else could seem to manage. Unfortunately his life was fraught with tragedy and after his wife died and his friends deserted him, he was pushed into bankruptcy and unable to find any more work. He died in obscurity and poverty in 1669.
5 Domenikos Theotokopoulos AKA El Greco
Born in 1541, El Greco as he came to be known, studied in Rome before moving to Spain. Some of his best known works were created for the Spanish royal family. El Greco was able to make a living as an artist for some time before he fell out of favor and became the subject of ridicule. He served as an inspiration for painters that brought forth the Expressionist and Cubist movements. Unfortunately after his work was scorned and laughed at he was unable to continue to make a living as a painter. He died in poverty in 1614.
4 Amedeo Modigliani
Born in 1884, Modigliani was an Italian artist. He painted and sculpted, spending most of his career in France. He was known for his unique portraits and lush nudes. Modigliani’s family was very poor and tragedy followed him from an early age. He was a true bohemian, drinking absinthe, smoking hashish, and attending wild parties. Modigliani lived fast and hard and died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35, leaving his nine-month pregnant wife behind. She was so distraught over his death she committed suicide the very next day jumping five stories to her death.
3 Johannes Vermeer
Best known for his painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Vermeer never gained recognition for his talent during his lifetime. After the French invaded the Netherlands in 1672, the Dutch economy suffered terribly and Vermeer was left in hopeless debt. He suffered from a number of physical afflictions as well as mental illness. He was forced to borrow money from his family and after his death at the age of 43; his family was left penniless as well.
2 Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin had more than his share of tragedy. He lost his daughter Aline, to pneumonia and his son Clovis, to a blood infection. His work was considered risqué and exotic during his time and not appreciated for its primitive influences. Gauguin died of heart failure, alone in poverty. He had no idea of the impact that his work would have on the art world.
1 Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime. It sold for the equivalent of approximately $109 dollars. Although he is famous for his works such as “The Starry Night” this artist battled mental illness most of his life. Unfortunately he finally lost this battle and cut his ear off in 1888, committing suicide not long after that by shooting himself in the chest. His last words were, “The sadness will last forever.” He died broke and destitute.
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