At the start of this post, I hesitated if I should include outsider artists like Henri Dagger, James Hampton or Charles Dellschau into my considerations. The works of these artists were only discovered after their deaths and gained considerable recognition. During their lifetime they’ve never sought to share their creations with the world, but considered them a private undertaking. In fact, they were rather fierce about keeping their art a private undertaking.

Henri Dagger – Vivian Girls

The artists that I want to consider in this post, are those who despaired to share their creations with their contemporaries, but were rebuffed. Some of these artists experienced success early on, but later died in obscurity, with little money and even less praise, only becoming icons after their deaths.

My aim is to set off these artists against those who were gaining fame and wealth during their lifetime, just to sink into obscurity afterwards.

Vincent Van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. He is probably the most famous example of an artist who was completely ignored and turned away by his contemporaries during his lifetime, while his work was hailed as a turning point in the visual arts once he passed away.

A head and shoulders portrait of a thirty something man, with a red beard, facing to the left
Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887, Art Institute of Chicago

Hans Makart (1840–1884) was a contemporary of Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Degas, but enormously more acclaimed in his lifetime than any of those. One reason for his success was that he was a master of PR. Makart transformed his studio, an old foundry, into a vast stage set crammed with floral displays, sculpture and opulent bric-à-brac. Cosima Wagner described it as a ‘wonder of decorative beauty, a sublime lumber-room’. To a 21st-century eye, old photographs of the space look like installation art. He gave his age what it wanted: masses of voluptuous naked flesh depicted with sub-Rubenesque gusto, mixed with jewels, rich textiles and maybe a spot of blood. But who remembers Makart now?

Hans Makart – Japanese.

Van Gogh on the other hand, suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions, and though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, did not eat properly and drank heavily. Between 1885 and his death in 1890, Van Gogh appears to have been building an oeuvre, a collection that reflected his personal vision and could be commercially successful. However, he shied away Gauguin, did brusque several artists, and other influential people, that might otherwise have advanced his career.

Among the writers one can discern a similar group. Just to name a few examples: John Keats, Herman Melville, James Joyce and Fernando Pessoa.  

And then you have on the other hand the example of Bret Harte (August 25, 1836 – May 5, 1902). He was an American short story writer and poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush. His work neglected on purpose the woes that accompanied the expansion of his country to the West.  On the contrary, his poem “The heathen Chinee” even increased the existing he prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiment among the white population of California. Mark Twain referred repeatedly to Harte as “The Immortal Bilk”. Harte’s work rests into a well deserved oblivion, albeit it generated a generous flow of income and popularity to its creator during his lifetime.

The ones that were successful during their lifetimes but slid into obscurity afterwards show the same pattern: they created what people wanted to hear and see, not necessarily what they SHOULD hear and see. These artists had an immaculate reputation, possessed an ability to rub elbows with influential people, were socially acceptable, and had a great sense for public relations. They didn’t see art as a tool to promote new ideas or insights, but as a tool to achieve fame and fortune.

The lives of those now famous, but who lived and died as a marginal, often followed a downward spiraling pattern: substance abuse, mental instability, delusions, disruptive behavior, untimely death. All of them became artistic icons once their own existence didn’t obscure the access to their works anymore. Very few people would know what the truly significant art of today is. You’d have to be an incredibly perceptive person to do so. The history books keep being changed.

2 thoughts on “The Death of an Artist and his Reputation .

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