Genius is often accompanied by tragedy. Perhaps none are so tragic as those who never live to see the heights of fame they will one day reach.
From secluded poets to struggling painters, the following luminaries are universally celebrated today, but were mired in obscurity during their lifetimes.
1 Vincent van Gogh
Despite his current-day fame, Vincent van Gogh earned only 400 francs from the single painting that he sold to Anna Boch, sister of painter Eug ne Boch.
Although an extremely prolific artist, his life was marred by severe self-doubt and depression. When he died from a gunshot wound in the tiny French village of Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890 he was a nameless face.
In death, he earned a reputation in the art world that he never achieved during his lifetime. He heavily influenced other artists such as Kirchner, Derain and Matisse.
Today, he is probably the most famous artist of all time after Leonardo da Vinci.
Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night” are two of the most recognizable paintings in the world. In contrast to his single pitiful sale in 1890, Van Gogh’s works regularly bring millions of dollars at auction.
Most remarkably for a failure, his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was auctioned for a record $82.5 million in 1990.
2 Emily Dickinson
The pale poet is as famous for her dislike of society as for her fatalistic poetry. Throughout her short life in the quiet New England hamlet of Amherst she composed more than 1500 poems.
She was haunted by the specter of constant death. During her lifetime, several of her closest friends died tragically, as well as her parents and her nephew. This was reflected in her work, particularly in her most famous poem “Because I could not stop for Death”.
After her death, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia discovered hundreds of poems hidden away in her room and became determined to publish them.
Overnight, Emily Dickinson was transformed from an unknown recluse to a world-renowned poet. Sadly, she never lived to enjoy her status as one of the most celebrated American poets.
3 John Kennedy Toole
Unlike Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole was desperate to have his work published. During his tenure in the US Army, he began work on a comic novel entitled “A Confederacy of Dunces”.
The novel was set in Toole’s hometown of New Orleans, and Toole drew heavily on the city’s rich culture and his own personal experiences while composing it. After he left the military, Toole sent the novel to several publishers. However, it was universally rejected.
Toole sank into depression and began to drink heavily. He also exhibited signs of paranoia and confusion analogous with symptoms of schizophrenia.
In 1969, at the age of 31, he killed himself by means of carbon monoxide poisoning. His mother was devastated, but strongly believed that his rejected manuscript was a masterpiece.
She attempted to have the work published, sending it out again and again to different publishers. When that ended in failure, she launched a concerted campaign to urge novelist Walker Percy to read the novel.
Percy finally gave in to her badgering and found to his astonishment that “A Confederacy of Dunces” was a vivid and entertaining work.
With Percy’s influence, the novel was finally published in 1980, 11 years after Toole’s death. The following year Toole was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
4 Franz Kafka
Kafka was virtually unknown during his lifetime. To most people that knew him, he was a sickly law clerk that worked several dull jobs at a series of insurance firms.
What many didn’t know is that Kafka was a prolific author, having penned three full-length novels and dozens of short stories in his spare time.
He published several stories in different magazines, but they went unnoticed. Like so many unsuccessful artists before him, Kafka descended into a pit of depression, exacerbated by the deadly disease tuberculosis.
Indeed, it wasn’t until after Kafka’s untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 40 that he began to achieve some level of fame.
His books were banned in Germany by the Nazi party in the 1930s; this only served to increase their popularity. They were then translated into English, allowing Kafka to finally achieve worldwide recognition.
In the 1940s, the term “Kafkaesque” was coined, and he joined the select group of writers, including Shakespeare and Milton, who have adjectives derived from their names.
5 Robert Johnson
With the deck of history stacked against him, it would have been remarkable if Robert Johnson had achieved any level of fame in his lifetime. The famous blues guitarist was black and born in Mississippi in the early 1900s.
These two facts alone should have been enough to doom him to obscurity forever. If not for his remarkable musical talent, Johnson would have been lost to posterity.
Johnson, a self-taught traveling musician, often used aliases and had no permanent home. His life is shrouded in mystery. Other than the fact that he was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and was married twice, very little is known about his life.
What is certain is that between 1936 and 1937, Johnson recorded 29 different songs for the American Record Company. A year later he was dead, leaving only these few songs behind as a testament to his life and work.
Johnson was essentially unknown to all but a handful of blues and folk music aficionados until the re-release of his songs in 1961 with “King of the Delta Blues Singers”. This album heavily influenced famous rock musicians like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
Today, Johnson’s music has become the stuff of legend, with the details of his life hovering somewhere between myth and fiction.