All artists create with distant hopes, yet most never reach fame…in life, or in death.
A few achieve posthumous fame, however, after all the world can appreciate are the works they left behind.
While more get discovered each year, here are five artists you should already know who weren’t famous until after their death. Each possessed not only crazy talent, but also crazy lives.
Vincent van Gogh
The quintessential tortured artist, Vincent van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853.
Curiously, Vincent didn’t start painting until age 27. He received underground recognition at 37, when he supposedly sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard. This occurred shortly before his death in 1890.
Meanwhile, his affluent younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh, supported him.
This enabled Vincent to lead a certain lifestyle, including a period wherein another great artist and drinker, Paul Gauguin, moved in with the elder van Gogh. The two converged artistically, until Vincent allegedly chased Paul with a razor.
Despite a century of myth-making, what is known for certain is Vincent cut off his ear and infamously hand-delivered it to a brothel maid, 18-year-old “Rachel,” whose real name was Gabrielle Berlatier.
Van Gogh did not die until 1.5 years later, perhaps from suicide. Tragedy continued to mar the artist’s world, even in death: his brother Theo died only six months later at age 33, while attempting to popularize Vincent’s life work.
Fortunately, Theo’s wife retrieved the baton. Within a decade, she achieved what her husband and Vincent himself could not.
Despite owning the mark of melancholy, each stroke in van Gogh’s work represents a sort of chaotic joy. His pieces remain timeless, and very expensive, 130 years later.
Born in Massachusetts in 1932, Sylvia Plath became the first person to receive a prestigious Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
While the award was for poetry, Plath also wrote prose. Prior to her death in 1963 at age 30, she wrote several short stories and one novel, The Bell Jar.
Considered a classic today, that novel wasn’t credited to her real name until 1967. Additionally, its publication in the US didn’t occur until 1971.
Unfortunately, Plath’s literary struggles in death reflected the artist’s reality in life.
During her enrollment at Smith, Plath attempted suicide but, thankfully, survived. She soon thereafter began her residency at McLean Hospital, as described in the poem “The Hanging Man.”
In 1956, she married poet Ted Hughes, who abused and ultimately jilted her. This contributed significantly to Sylvia’s tragic suicide.
Afterward, Hughes became the executor of her estate. Before his death in 1998, he revealed that he destroyed all the journals Plath wrote immediately before death.
Despite Plath’s hardship and the tragic loss of so much of her work, her legacy has persisted and grown fiercely.
The fervor flowing around her works, which continue to shake readers to this day, is a testament to the life she poured into them.
Nick Drake, born in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1948, remained relatively unknown as a musician during his lifetime.
However, Drake achieved underground popularity after death and influenced many other artists, most notably Robert Smith of The Cure.
In 1968, Nick signed with Island Records. Over the next five years, he released 3 albums.
Reviews were mostly negative, partially because the albums were hard to classify.
Secondly, Nick Drake wasn’t exactly marketable. For example, during live performances, he was often unnoticed and talked over by audience members.
Despite developing a humble following, Nick quit touring in 1970. In fact, during his last show, he walked out on an attentive audience.
He then recorded his sparse final album, Pink Moon (1972), immediately checking into a psych ward upon its completion.
Drake later moved back home with his parents in England, smoked copious amounts of weed, and saw essentially no one until he died of a drug overdose at the age of 26.
While Drake sold a mere 5,000 records during his lifetime, his career hit it big in the 21st century. As of 2014, his sales exceed well over 2 million.
Despite harsh criticisms from himself, the audience, and pundits, his still largely untold story destined Drake for greatness.
One of the most prolific thinkers and misquoted philosophers of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Germany, formerly Prussia.
Nietzsche wrote one book a year for nine years, and five in 1888. After that, he wrote nothing else until he died in 1900, at the age of 55.
Throughout his life, Nietzsche had what countless writers struggle to find: solitude.
This solitude, however, wasn’t exactly a choice. Bedridden from chronic sickness, Nietzsche suffered from regular headaches since childhood, as well as vomiting and insomnia.
The writer had a gift for creating poetry and fleshing-out complex concepts.
In Twilight of the Idols, he said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Though English translations of this quote vary, Nietzsche continuously proved just that.
Nietzsche remains, after 561 years, one of the youngest tenured “Classics” professors at the ancient University of Basel, a position he secured at the age of 24 in 1869.
In the end, Nietzsche resigned from teaching in 1878, citing mental health deterioration. He then wrote nonstop until early 1889.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s last 11 years were difficult—not only for himself, but for his loved ones, as well: he died mentally insane and physically dependent on his family.
When he was able, however, no one was more dedicated, thorough, and imaginative with a pen.
Otis Redding, the King of Soul, was the first artist to score a number one hit song posthumously.
Born in Georgia in 1941, Redding oscillated between rock and soul as a unique performer, during one of the most diverse moments of music history.
Songs like “Respect” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” demonstrated Otis was not only a stellar singer, but also a once-in-a-lifetime songwriter.
His posthumous hit song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was recorded just days before his death, but was incomplete. The whistle solo, one of the song’s most iconic parts today, was originally intended to be replaced with lyrics.
Weeks before his untimely death, he performed at the historic 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. By then, Aretha Franklin was on the airwaves with a transformed cover of Redding’s 1965 song, “Respect,” featuring a new tempo and feminist meaning.
From playing with Little Richard’s old backing band at only 15, to his musical partnership with Booker T. & the M.G.’s during his later years, Otis was destined to forge a unique path.
In fact, even his death at age 26 was unique, though also mysterious and tragic: in 1967, Redding’s plane crashed. It killed six others and left only one survivor.
While it’s heartbreaking to know these incredible talents didn’t get the recognition they deserved during their lifetimes, truly great artists of any medium probably don’t mind that fame only touched them in death.
After all, they created for their love of their respective crafts, with the hope of leaving behind a legacy greater than their mortal selves—and, without a doubt, that’s exactly what they accomplished.