While many are familiar with the term “starving artist,” this stereotype of impoverished artists struggling to get by has been sadly true throughout much of history. Fine art painters in particular are infamous for leading poverty and grief-stricken lives.
Much like today, many of history’s famous artists also had to deal with rejection and negative criticisms during their lifetime.
Perhaps this makes their accomplishments all the more interesting, as their art, their struggle, and their lives still haunt and intrigue us to this day.
These 10 famous artists were all highly-skilled painters who had to deal with rejection, criticism, grief and/or poverty during their lifetime. Although a few eventually gained recognition during their life for their artistic contributions, most of them were under-appreciated and would never know the artistic legacy they would leave behind because it came only after they had passed on. However, these 10 famous artists now live on forever as revered masters of their respective styles.
Claude Monet – As the founder of French Impressionism, Monet’s paintings usually dealt with landscape scenes in a moment. While his seminal work “Impression, Sunrise” is now studied and appreciated in art colleges around the world, it was widely derided by critics when it was first revealed. Monet received little but abuse from public and critics alike, who complained that the paintings were formless, unfinished, and ugly. He and his family endured abject poverty. By the 1880s, however, his paintings started selling.
Vincent Van Gogh – It is hard not to think of tragedy when considers the life of Vincent Van Gogh. If there was ever a fine line between madness and genius, Vincent Van Gogh crossed it quite early in his career. Without his time in insane asylums and self-inflicted ear mutilation, the world would have never had “The Starry Night” and “The Potato Eaters.” Despite his countless post-Impressionist chefs-d’oeuvres, Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.
Johannes Vermeer – While Vermeer painted the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” he certainly was not draped in them during his life. Instead of having the elite or nobility commission works, Vermeer’s genre of painting was catered to the provincial middle class. In 1675 Vermeer borrowed money in Amsterdam, using his mother-in-law as a surety. Soon after, the Dutch genre painter actually left his family in debt upon his death.
El Greco – While many have never heard of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco is a legend in the art world. But during his lifetime, because of his unconventional artistic beliefs (such as his dismissal of Michelangelo’s technique) and personality, El Greco acquired enemies in Rome. He was so beyond his times that scholars still do not know how to properly define his style, which combined Byzantine and Western influences. Yet, his brilliant works like “The Assumption of the Virgin” would loosely inspire later forms like Expressionism and Cubism.
Paul Cezanne – Considered by many as the father of modern art, but Paul Cezanne was anything but common. Like El Greco, he made significant contributions to Cubism. Nevertheless, the Salon rejected Cézanne’s submissions every year from 1864 to 1869. Few significant artists ever had less success. In addition, Cezanne’s personal life was marked by tensions that sharpened his sensitivity to relationships. A mere one year after his death, he was inducted in the famed Salon d’Automne and given the recognition he rightfully deserved.
Georges-Pierre Seurat – Probably most well known for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Georges-Pierre Seurat redefined what it meant to be a 19th century renaissance man; his works were true artistic and scientific masterpieces. In his paintings, the artist introduced advancements in color and optical theory alike. After his painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, Seurat turned away from such establishments, instead allying himself with the independent artists of Paris.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Toulouse-Lautrec gave audiences a look into the real Moulin Rouge. An intimate friend of Vincent van Gogh (he even painted him) and Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec did not fare any better than his artistic comrades. On top of being a struggling artist, Toulouse-Lautrec also suffered from disabilities and chronic health problems. While his artistic achievements would eventually be recognized, he also made a splash in the medical field; in true bohemian fashion, one of his conditions, pycnodysostosis, would come to be known as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome. Lautrec was often mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, and this led him to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
Edouard Manet – There is probably no one on this list that was more frustrated by not receiving recognition than Manet. We can see him rebel in works like “Olympia” and “The Luncheon on the Grass” where he turned conservative French society topsy-turvy with the bold use of nudity. Rejected by the Salon, and later excluded from the International exhibition of 1867, Manet then set up his own exhibition that earned poor reviews from the major critics.
Paul Gauguin – Poverty became Gauguin’s reality. Then his favorite daughter Aline died of pneumonia and Clovis, his son, died from a blood infection. Gauguin’s escapades were far more exotic than his peers which eventually landed him in French Polynesia. There, he produced masterpieces like “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” which largely inspired primitivism – an important art movement of the 19th century. After many years of poverty and sickness, Gauguin died from heart failure, alone and unaware of the mark his art would later make on the 20th century.
Alfred Sisley – Despite being part of the original core group of Impressionist artists, his works were usually rejected by the jury of the most important art exhibition in France. His artistic approach, innovative at the time, resulted in paintings more colorful and more broadly painted than the public was accustomed to seeing. This made it difficult for his landscape art to gain any recognition during his lifetime. Perhaps worse, he never gained recognition for his work among his artistic peers either. It couldn’t have helped that he was a Brit in a world of French Impressionists.