The famous artists whose legacies were only discovered after their untimely deaths



Johann Sebastian Bach

One of the greatest composers of all time, Bach was little-known while alive and was mostly recognized for performing on the organ. In the press of the time, his detractors suggested he write less complex music, and following his death in 1750, while most of his work was inherited by his family members, not all of them were concerned with its preservation. This led to the loss of a large portion of his work, but his second eldest son began safeguarding his father’s legacy, and in 1829, 79 years after his death, musician Felix Mendelssohn’s Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion fueled a revival of interest in the technically brilliant and highly skilled virtuoso. Thanks in part to its 1940 orchestration in Disney’s Fantasia, Fugue in D Minor is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of classical music today.


John Keats

Characterized in the literary periodical, The Quarterly Review, as “a copyist of Mr. [Leigh] Hunt; but…more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome”, John Keats died of tuberculosis at age 25 having sold only an estimated 200 copies of his three volumes of poetry. Quoted by such varied characters as Mary Poppins (1964) and Willy Wonka (1971), ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, is the opening line to one of his most famous poems, entitled Endymion, which was described at the time by writer John Gibson Lockhart as “imperturbable driveling idiocy.” Following his death, and due largely to emergent Victorian literary sensibilities, his reputation grew. He is now one of the most studied and celebrated of all English poets.


Emily Dickinson

Although she was well known locally during her later life, it was Emily Dickinson’s eccentricity, not her poetry, that brought her that renown. Born to a prominent Massachusetts family, well-educated, and with what is widely understood to have been a happy childhood, Dickenson became increasingly reclusive the older she got, eventually communicating with visitors almost exclusively through her bedroom door. Only a handful of her poems were published before her death in 1886, and the sheer volume of work – nearly 1,800 poems – was not discovered until after she died. Even then, many of the poems were heavily edited to conform with the poetic standards of the day, and the name ‘Susan’ – her sister-in-law to whom various of her poems were penned – was edited out.


Vincent Van Gogh

One of the most influential and revered artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh was considered a madman during his lifetime. His mental health issues are immortalized in the painting Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, 1889, which he painted after severing off his own ear with a razor during a psychotic episode (he sent the lopped-off lobe to a woman who worked at the town brothel). Famously selling just one painting while he was alive, the artist committed suicide at 37, shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. Nicknamed “le fou roux” (the redheaded madman) by his neighbors, van Gogh paintings now sell for record making sums, indeed works from his “Sunflowers” series are now considered truly priceless.


Robert Johnson

Awarded a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 for his 1990 compilation album, The Complete Recordings, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, Robert Johnson was a peripatetic performer during his lifetime, often busking on street corners or at ‘juke joints’ and shacking up with members of the audience so he had some place to stay. Now widely considered as the ‘father of the blues’, 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers is accepted as one of the most influential albums of all time, heavily influencing Bob Dylan’s sound and inspiring guitarists to play the blues through amplifiers, which would ultimately come to define rock music via bands including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and The Who, who site Johnson as an essential influence.


Nick Drake

Struggling with depression through much of his life, singer-songwriter Nick Drake failed to find a wide audience while he was alive, probably exacerbating his mental health issues. Signed to Island Records while he was studying at Cambridge University, he released three albums, none of which did well, and after completing Pink Moon in 1972, he retreated from both recording and performing. He committed suicide two years later, but the success of his records has since soared. The lead guitarists from The Cure and R.E.M. have both sited Drake as an influence.


Jeff Buckley 

His cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is legendary, and became the artist’s first and only number one hit following a cover by Jason Castro on the seventh season of American Idol. His untimely death from accidental drowning at age 30 following a spontaneous swim in the Mississippi River gave rise to tribute songs by artists including PJ Harvey, Rufus Wainwright and Chris Cornell. Tribute concerts continue to this day, including the annual An Evening With Jeff Buckley in New York City, and in 2015, Sony Executives researching the 20th anniversary of his debut album, Grace, discovered tapes from a 1993 recording session for Columbia Records. Those tapes were released as the 2016 album, You and I.


Stieg Larsson

Well known as a journalist and editor during his life, Larsson was most recognized in his native Sweden as a far-left activist and opponent of right-wing extremism; he became famous as an author after his death. Following a sudden heart attack at age 50, his Millennium trilogy was published posthumously in 2005, which includes novels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the latter becoming the most sold book in the United States in 2010. The three novels were adapted into Swedish language films that were unexpectedly highly successful in international markets, and established lead actress Noomi Rapace as a global star. The success of the Swedish films spurred a Hollywood adaptation starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.