Artists who found fame after death
Most artists who pick up a guitar, a paintbrush, a camera, or a pen likely do so with rock-star dreams of fame, fortune, celebrity, the envy of their peers, and the adoration of their fans. Most artists never actually achieve the dream of fame—only a handful of the luckiest and most talented do. Then there’s another much more unfortunate category of artists: those whose dreams of celebrity, influence, and riches are fully realized, but not until after they die.
Throughout history and across all genres of art, talented creators have toiled and tried, labored and languished, prodded, and persisted without persevering. They went unnoticed, were ridiculed and scorned, ignored by their peers, and rejected by society during their lives. After they died, however, their art suddenly took on new meaning and garnered new interest. Sometimes it took years, decades, or even centuries. Other times, it was the artist’s death itself that compelled society to take a second look at the work.
In some cases, lost manuscripts, records, paintings, or performances were unearthed years after the artist died. In other cases, the artists completed their best work in their final days on Earth. Other times, family members or diehard fans embarked on relentless campaigns to get the artists the posthumous credit they believed they always deserved.
Stacker curated a gallery of 50 artists who became truly famous only after they died. To do this, a variety of sources were used, including news reports, memorials, industry publications like Rolling Stone, museum biographies, and artist tribute organizations. Some of the creative geniuses profiled died and became famous centuries ago, others just in the past few years. The following is a list of the painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, and other artists who died without having any assurance their work would one day change the world.
You may also like: Major cities most at risk of rising sea levels
Johann Sebastian Bach
Even people who don’t know anything about classical music know the name Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest and most celebrated composers in the history of Western music. The more than 1,000 works he crafted before his death in 1750 went largely unnoticed during his time, and he was known mainly as a talented organist and organ repair consultant. When composer Felix Mendelssohn resurrected Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in 1829, however, artists began digging back into Bach’s work and gained a new appreciation for his mastery of things like counterpoint and fugue, two musical concepts that are exceedingly difficult to execute.
A youthful, rebellious, raw, and genre-bending band, Sublime was the biggest rock act of 1997, according to Rolling Stone. But the band’s leader, a talented and charismatic 28 year old named Bradley Nowell, died from a heroin overdose after a long struggle with addiction 18 months before, in May 1996. At the time of his death, Sublime was regionally popular and poised for success, but had not yet released what would become its breakout album.
[Pictured: Bradley Nowell and Sublime perform in New York City in 1995.]
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830, Emily Dickinson is remembered along with Walt Whitman as one of the two greatest poets of the 19th century and is universally hailed as a pioneer for women writers in the United States. She wrote more than 1,800 poems, but only 10 are known to have been published while she was alive—the rest she sent to friends and family or kept for herself.
Vincent van Gogh
The name Vincent van Gogh is instantly recognizable even among people who know nothing about art, but during van Gogh’s life, he achieved only modest recognition and just a handful of his works were displayed at serious exhibitions. When he died in July 1890, his brother Theo sought out to convince the world of his late brother’s genius. That effort was cut short when Theo died six months after Vincent. Theo’s wife Jo then picked up the mantle, published the van Gogh brothers’ letters and successfully campaigned to have Vincent’s paintings displayed at important exhibitions around the world.
[Pictured: Self portrait by Vincent van Gogh dated 1887.]
Postimpressionist painter Paul Gauguin knew, corresponded with, and even briefly lived with Vincent van Gogh. The two men also had a manager in common, a successful art dealer and Vincent’s younger brother Theo van Gogh. Also like van Gogh, however, Gauguin was mostly disregarded as a novelty experimentalist during his life and didn’t achieve wide acclaim until after he died in 1903. He is now regarded as one of the most important artists of his time, and his work is known to have inspired the cubism movement started by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
[Pictured: Self portrait by Paul Gauguin dated 1893.]
You may also like: What marriage was like the year you were born
Stieg Larsson wrote the “Millennium” series of novels, the first of which was the “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The series has sold more than 100 million copies, putting it in an elite category among history’s best-sellers. The book series in 2011 became a movie that earned nearly $233 million at the worldwide box office and spawned a sequel. Larsson experienced none of this success. He died of a heart attack in 2004 at 50 after submitting the manuscripts and before the first book was ever published.
American novelist and poet Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, nearly 20 years after her death in 1963. The first poet ever to win a posthumous Pulitzer, Plath published her first collection of poems, “The Colossus,” in England in 1960; and a novel, “The Bell Jar,” under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in January 1963—less than a month before she took her own life. Plath’s three most famous collections, including her Pulitzer-winning “The Collected Poems,” were published after her death.
Nearly 130 years after Herman Melville’s death in 1891, schoolteachers still assign “Moby D**k” as required reading—but it wasn’t always that way. While Melville was alive, the 1851 whaling epic was overshadowed by “Typee,” the author’s debut novel and the only one for which he received some legitimate critical acclaim. That book, however, came out in 1846 and by the time of his death, Melville was an obscure, mostly forgotten literary figure.
Born in 1840, Claude Monet is now regarded as the founding father of the impressionist movement and one of history’s most important artists. While he was alive, however, he—like so many other groundbreaking experimenters—received scorn that was at least equal to his success during his life and career. In the previous few decades, however, his works have sold for more than $20 million, $40 million, and even more than $80 million at auctions.
[Pictured: Claude Monet standing in his studio with a panel of his “Nympheas” mural.]
The word “Kafkaesque” is defined by Merriam-Webster as being “of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” The Bohemian writer, among the most important literary figures of the 20th century, couldn’t possibly have imagined his name would become a dictionary adjective. In fact, he asked his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, letters, journals, and sketches when he died. Brod ignored his friend’s dying wishes and published them anyway after Kafka died of tuberculosis at 40 in 1924, which means that virtually all of Kafka’s most important works eluded the world until after the writer’s death.
You may also like: Most imported endangered animals to America
Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft is known as one of the most important supernatural science-fiction writers of the 20th century, but during his life, he was never able to support himself through his writing, which he mostly did for small pulp magazines. Only after his death at 46 in 1937 did his work take off. DC Comics based its infamous “Arkham Asylum”—which held the Joker, Bane, Poison Ivy, and the Riddler in the “Batman” series—on the mental institution where Lovecraft’s mother died, which the author fictionalized in his writings. Lovecraft County is a HBO drama that showcases not only the traditional horrors seen in the work of the known racist, but the everyday horrors faced by the story’s Black protagonists, including police violence and white supremacy.
When World War I broke out, most of Europe’s famous writers wrote about the war in a patriotic and romanticized way, but as the brutal conflict dragged on, a new generation of writers—many of them veterans of the war—emerged to paint a more realistic picture of the carnage. Among the great World War I poets was Wilfred Owen, who would never live to see the impact of his words. He was killed in the waning days of the war in 1918 and his mother received the death telegram as the end of hostilities were being announced. His war poems, most famously “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” were popularized in the 1960s, and Owen is now considered one of the great modern English poets.
According to NPR, El Greco, the painter born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in 1541 in Crete, was so underappreciated during his time that very little is known about his life. What is known is that in his adopted country of Spain he was at odds with both the king and the Catholic Church, which considered him an outsider and didn’t like some of the works they commissioned him to paint. He was essentially forgotten for hundreds of years until his work was rediscovered and celebrated by artists like Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.
[Pictured: A man views El Greco’s “The Dream of Philip II.”]
In covering a 1991 tribute concert in his honor, Stephen Holden, for The New York Times, wrote, “Since his death in 1975 from a drug overdose, a cult has grown up around Tim Buckley, a folk-jazz singer and songwriter whose free-form compositions and fervent yowl suggested a hybrid of Van Morrison and Kenny Rankin skewed with avant-garde inclinations.” Although Buckley enjoyed some modest success while he was alive, he never achieved the breakout stardom that many of his more celebrated contemporaries believed he deserved and was on the cusp of realizing. He died from a heroin and morphine overdose in 1975 at 28.
[Pictured: Tim Buckley performs at The Bitter End Nightclub in New York City in 1967.]
John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1821 at 25. The poet’s works—the best of which were written when he was very ill in his final years and months—were mostly poorly received while he was alive. After his death, he remained obscure until as late as 1840, when a revival of his life and work made him one of the most celebrated and influential poets of the 19th century.
You may also like: The 52 women who have won the Nobel prize
When Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis took his life at age 23 in 1980, it was the end of the British post-punk band but the beginning of the stardom Curtis had always craved. He hanged himself just two days before the band’s first breakout North American tour, compelling bassist Peter Hook to later reflect, “The great tragedy of Ian’s death was that all he really wanted was to be successful, and he missed it … by a week.” After his death, Joy Division developed a cult following and is now considered to be the band that served as the bridge between energetic ’70s punk rock and the gloomier alternative music of the ’80s.
[Pictured: Ian Curtis of Joy Division performing in 1980.]
Little is known about the poorly documented life of Delta blues master Robert Johnson, who died at 27 in 1938 of suspected poisoning. Johnson worked gig to gig with virtually no recognition or acclaim during his life—his gift for music seemed to come to him virtually overnight, inspiring a persisting legend that claims Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly musical talent. When his recordings were reissued in the 1960s, a Robert Johnson revival led to his enshrinement among the greatest blues guitarists in history and as an influence for future artists like Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
[Pictured: A mural of Robert Johnson in Baptist Town, Mississippi.]
Painter, sculptor, and installation artist Paul Thek earned some notice and critical praise before moving to Europe in the early 1960s. When he returned to his native New York in 1976, however, that support had disappeared, and he lived the rest of his life in poverty and relative anonymity until his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1988 at 54. Posthumously, however, his work received renewed acclaim and continues to hold prominent positions in important art installations and exhibitions around the world.
[Pictured: Artist Paul Thek with his artwork “Crèche” in Duisburg, Germany, 1973.]
In 2017, when his works were part of a major exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian wrote, “Johannes Vermeer was so obscure he was barely even known when he died, let alone forgotten.” A Dutch Baroque period painter, Vermeer died in 1675 and his paintings remained unknown until they were rediscovered and celebrated in the mid-1800s as the modern French art movement was taking place in Europe.
[Pictured: Visitors view “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.]
Bruce Lee is one of the most famous and important martial artists in history, and he parlayed his skill, charisma, and impressive physique into a groundbreaking career in show business. At the time of his death in 1973 at 32, he was well known in Hong Kong and other parts of the Far East where his first two movies were released. His first major studio Hollywood blockbuster that came out one month after he died, was “Enter the Dragon,” which grossed more than $200 million and made Lee an icon in the United States.
You may also like: What the world was like when your grandparents were born
Mick Brown of The Telegraph described Nick Drake’s musical catalog as “three consummately beautiful albums—among the most beautiful ever to emerge from British pop music.” Yet when Drake died from a prescription drug overdose in 1974 at 26, after years of battling serious depression, “it was a tragedy that passed largely unnoticed”—all three albums were critical and commercial failures. In 1979, a re-released box set called “Fruit Tree” triggered a resurgence of interest in Drake; by the mid-1980s, he had developed a cult following and many top musicians were citing him as an inspiration.
In 2002, The New York Times article by Alex Ward was published with the headline “In Death, A Shy Singer Finally Grabs The Spotlight.” It told the story of Eva Cassidy, whose captivating soprano voice and wide range didn’t earn her much notoriety before she died in 1996 of melanoma at 33. After her death, British radio began playing her covers of “Over the Rainbow” and “Fields of Gold,” which, along with the posthumous release of some of her other recordings, made her a worldwide sensation that sold millions of albums and placed her music at the top of the charts.
In his prime, singer-songwriter Tim Hardin earned enough acclaim to play at the legendary Woodstock festival, but when he died in 1980 at 39 from a heroin addiction that consumed his entire adult life, he was largely unknown.
In his lifetime, Hardin’s songs like “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Reason to Believe” only gained prominence when they were covered by more celebrated musicians, many of whom—including Bob Dylan—would reflect on Hardin as one of history’s most underrated artists. In 2013, however, a tribute album called “Reason to Believe” was released, stoking new interest from a new generation in the forgotten folk master.
[Pictured: Tim Hardin performs at the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York, in 1969.]
Jackson C. Frank
Of all the great singer-songwriters to come out of the 1960s folk music scene, Jackson C. Frank’s name is rarely mentioned—after all, he released only one album in 1965. He died in 1999 after spending most of his later life homeless and destitute, grappling with addiction and several serious mental illnesses. Only then did his album develop a much wider, if not cult, following as many more celebrated musicians who knew and played with Frank covered his songs and cited him as an inspiration.
Cellist, composer, and singer Arthur Russell collaborated with many known artists during his career, but released very little original material and went largely unnoticed in popular culture. When he died of AIDS in 1992, however, his longtime partner released an enormous volume of finished and unfinished material that the nearly broke Russell left behind in his modest New York City apartment. Throughout the 2000s, re-releases, albums, singles, compilations, and writings led to what Lucy Schiller of The New Yorker in 2017 dubbed “The Word-of-Mouth Resurgence of Arthur Russell.”
You may also like: Polar bears and 50 other species threatened by climate change
Henry Darger died in 1973 at 81 after living his entire life as an odd, shabby, ridiculed outsider who worked as a hospital custodian and lived in poverty in tiny, cramped apartments. When he died, his landlord entered his apartment and found a hoarder’s paradise packed wall-to-wall with clutter, junk, debris—and what would become one of the most significant troves of “outsider art” in American history. Discovered completely posthumously, the hermit Darger left behind a massive catalog of bizarre but beautiful—though often dark and disturbing—paintings and manuscripts that are staples of outsider art exhibitions at museums and exhibits around the world to this day.
[Pictured: Attendees of the 2001 Outsider Art Fair in New York City view paintings by Henry Darger.]
Zora Neale Hurston
Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote enduring and authentic tales of African American life and history, most notably, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Despite her extraordinary literary and academic accomplishments, however, she died in 1960 at 69 virtually unknown to the general reading public. In 1975, fellow author Alice Walker penned an article for Ms. magazine called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which led to a massive spike in Hurston’s popularity among the general public and academics, and her work became required reading in classrooms across the country.
John Kennedy Toole
In 1969, John Kennedy Toole took his own life, dying by carbon monoxide poisoning. The 31-year-old writer had grown depressed and rejected after several failed attempts at publishing his satirical novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” After his death, his mother spent five years trying to get the book published. She succeeded: Toole won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1981, and the book remains a cult favorite today.
French composer Georges Bizet enjoyed little recognition and no fame during his life, which ended in 1875 from a heart attack when he was just 36. In the last year of his life, he produced his final opera, “Carmen.” He died believing “Carmen”—like the rest of his career—was doomed to failure, not knowing that the four-act libretto would go down in history as one of the most important, influential, and beloved operas of all time.
Julia Margaret Cameron
British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron took up photography as a hobby when she was nearly 50. For the dozen or so years until she died in 1879, she amassed an impressive collection of portrait photographs. Her pictures, however, were ridiculed for their “soft” focus and unrefined quality, but after her death, she was recognized as revolutionizing close-up photography and continues to be hailed as an important innovator.
You may also like: Can you solve these real ‘Jeopardy!’ clues about literature?
Singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley enjoyed some commercial and critical success for the only album he released before his death, but nothing like the genuine fame he achieved after he died in an accidental drowning in 1997 at 30. In 2012, Rolling Stone named his album “Grace” one of the 500 best albums of all time. In 2004, the same publication named Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as one of the 300 greatest songs of all time. “Grace,” along with a posthumous album, enjoyed significant sales and airplay in the 2000s.
Kate Chopin, author of such works as “Désirée’s Baby,” “At Fault,” “A Night in Acadia,” and “The Awakening,” is counted today among the early pioneering feminist authors and one of the most important figures in Louisiana/Creole literature. When she died in 1904 at 54, however, her work had appeared in a few significant publications but won no major awards, and was frequently condemned as immoral or vulgar.
Anne Frank is perhaps the most tragic posthumously famous writer in history. As a Jewish teenager hiding with her family to escape transport to a Nazi camp in 1942, she kept a diary to hang onto some semblance of a normal life while the world descended into madness outside. She and her family were discovered in 1944 and deported from Amsterdam to concentration camps. Frank died of typhus in February 1945. Her journal was discovered and published in 1947 as “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” and has since been translated into 70 languages, sold more than 30 million copies, and made Frank an enduring worldwide symbol of bravery and humanity.
More than 200 years after her death, Jane Austen’s work is rarely out of print, and continues to inspire movies, spinoffs, shows, plays, adaptations, and old-fashioned book sales. She is widely considered to be one of the greatest dialogue writers in the history of English literature. Four of her five novels—“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Emma”—were published and successful while she was alive, with only “Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” published posthumously. Austen published her novels anonymously, however, and died as an obscure and unknown author.
Russian playwright, writer, and medical doctor Mikhail Bulgakov was 48 when he died in 1940. His satirical and comedic plays and writings gained some notoriety, but were frequently censored or shut down altogether by the Soviet authorities; in the 1930s, he was prohibited from publishing at all. “The Master and Margarita”—the masterpiece that made him famous and that is widely considered to be one of the great satirical novels of the 20th century—was only published in 1966 in a heavily censored form along with some of his other works that had long been buried by Stalinist authorities.
You may also like: 87 top-rated charities to support military members and their families
Henry David Thoreau
When naturalist, moralist, and transcendentalist icon Henry David Thoreau died in 1862 at 44, his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson eulogized, “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” Thoreau’s seminal work “Walden,” was published in 1854 and sold fewer than 2,000 copies before it went out of print five years later. Thoreau died in relative obscurity. Today, however, his essays, poems, and philosophies are among the most famous in the world, and remain curriculum staples at high schools and colleges across the country.
Comedian Bill Hicks achieved some notoriety during his life—particularly among other comedians and stand-up die-hards—but he became truly famous after he died of cancer at 32 in 1994. His controversial material—which often derided religion, government, and popular culture—gained enormous recognition among a much wider audience, and his work was vaulted to the genre’s summit as he earned a place among the greatest comedians in history. In 2017, Rolling Stone named him the #13 greatest stand-up comedian of all time.
It’s hard to imagine today that William Shakespeare—the most important, celebrated, influential, and well-known figure in the history of the English language—was, although a well-known writer and actor, not earth-shatteringly famous, and certainly not outside of London. By the time of his death in 1616, Shakespeare had been long retired and was considered over-the-hill: His plays were no longer being performed, and the vast majority of his most important works were unpublished. Andrea Mays and James L. Swanson of the New York Post in 2016 recounted an amazing story about two of Shakespeare’s friends who embarked on a quest to publish a complete collection of his plays and make the Bard the most posthumously famous celebrity in history.
Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole was a celebrated figure for his music and cultural advocacy before he died in 1997 at 38—but that fame was concentrated almost exclusively in his native Hawaii. His cover of Judy Garland’s and Louis Armstrong’s “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”—which he rarely played to his pro-sovereignty Hawaiian audiences—became a mainland hit after it appeared in a commercial series for eToys.com in 1999. The song soon appeared in dozens of movies, TV shows, and trailers, mainstream America was awakened to Iz’s talent, and his album “Facing Future” became the first Hawaiian album to sell more than 1 million copies.
Edward Davis Wood Jr. became posthumously famous for all the wrong reasons. The filmmaker, author, and actor put out a string of unremarkable low-budget B horror and sci-fi movies in the 1950s and ’60s before moving on to sexploitation and pornography in the 1970s and dying in 1978 as a virtual unknown. In 1980, he posthumously won the Golden Turkey Award for “Worst Director of All Time,” and his career developed a cult following as he came to epitomize the so-bad-it’s-good genre of movies. In 1994, Tim Burton made the biopic “Ed Wood” starring Johnny Depp, and the film won two Academy Awards.
[Pictured: Filmmaker Ed Wood Jr. in a film still from “Glen Or Glenda” in 1953.]
You may also like: Cities doing the most for a clean energy future
Philip K. D**k
Science-fiction author Philip Kindred D**k achieved literary acclaim before he died in 1982, including some top genre awards and honors, but he was by no means famous in the mainstream. Three months after he died, however, his book “Blade Runner” was released as a movie and became one of the most celebrated sci-fi films in history. In the ensuing years, “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and “The Man in the High Castle,” were all released as movies or TV series to wide critical and commercial success. All were based on D**k’s books.
Italian-Jewish sculptor and painter Amedeo Modigliani achieved almost no success or recognition before he died in 1920 at 35. After his death, however, his work achieved stunning popularity that made his pieces some of the hottest commodities in the art world. In 2015, one of Modigliani’s pieces fetched more than $170 million. Three years later, another sold for $157 million.
[Pictured: Amedeo Modigliani photographed in his studio circa 1910.]
Jonathan David Larson
Jonathan David Larson wrote several well-received plays and musicals, but he is truly famous for “Rent.” In an incredible stroke of misfortune, the 35 year old died unexpectedly on Jan. 25, 1996—the very morning of the preview performance of “Rent.” The production received glowing critical reviews, massive commercial success, and earned Larson three posthumous Tony Awards and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
[Pictured: The cast of “Rent” performs onstage during the 62nd Annual Tony Awards in 2008.]
Camille Claudel was a French sculptor who suffered from mental illness, was periodically confined in mental hospitals, and destroyed some of her best works. Although she studied with two of the best sculptors of her day, she was barred from the top art academies because she was a woman, and she died in obscurity as a relative unknown. After her death in 1943 while in her late 70s, however, “The Waltz,” “The Mature Age,” and her other masterpieces gained international attention. She is now regarded as one of the greatest sculptors in history, and her works are on permanent display in some of the world’s biggest venues and sell for millions of dollars at auction.
For a quarter of a century, artist Bob Kane was credited with creating the Batman character—and the flamboyant showman milked and marketed it for all it was worth until his death in 1998. Writer Bill Finger, however, co-created the Caped Crusader with Kane, yet received no credit for 75 years. DC Comics and Warner Bros. finally righted that wrong in 2015 when they agreed to list him as a co-creator. Finger died in 1974 broke and unknown while Kane gobbled up all the limelight and all associated superhero-craze money.
You may also like: Popular fashion trends the year you were born
Vivian Maier was a mysterious and reclusive woman who worked as a nanny for decades in Chicago while doubling as a passionate amateur street photographer. Few people ever saw her photographs until amateur historian John Maloof bought 30,000 of her more than 100,000 negatives at an auction in 2007. He started a blog and a Flickr page showcasing the photos, which went viral and led to Maier becoming one of the most celebrated street photographers in the world—but not until after she died in 2009 at 83.
[Pictured: A visitor views photographs by Vivian Maier in Helsingør, Denmark.]
In 1906, British artist, teacher, writer, and poet Edith Holden created a naturalist’s diary that contained poems, paintings, and written descriptions of insects, animals, plants, birds, and the changing of the seasons. She accidentally drowned in the Thames River in 1920, but in 1977, her diary was published as “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.” It is now one of the best-selling books in British history.