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 critics 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, before his second eldest son began safeguarding his father’s legacy. In 1829, 79 years after his death, musician Felix Mendelssohn’s Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion fuelled 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.
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 the age of just 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 in 1821, and due largely to emergent Victorian literary sensibilities, his reputation began to grow and grow. He is now one of the most studied, respected and celebrated English poets to date.
Although she was well known locally during her later life, it was Emily Dickinson’s eccentricity, and not her poetry, that brought her to fame. Born to a prominent Massachusetts family, well-educated, and with what is widely understood to have been a happy childhood, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive the older she became, eventually communicating with visitors almost exclusively through the cracks of 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 – were 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, who she wrote many of her poems about – had also been removed, possibly due to suspected impropriety.
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 the age of 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, with works from his Sunflowers series considered priceless.
Awarded a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 for his compilation album, The Complete Recordings, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, Robert Johnson was a peripatetic performer for most of his life, 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’, his 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers is known as one of the most influential albums of all time. The record heavily influenced Bob Dylan’s sound as well as inspiring subsequent guitarists who played the blues through amplifiers, eventually defining what we now know as rock music. Bands including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and The Who all site Johnson as a key influence.
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.
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.
Well-known as a journalist and editor during his life, Stieg Larsson was mostly recognized in his native Sweden as a far-left activist and opponent of right-wing extremism yet only 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 U.S 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 also spurred a Hollywood adaptation starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.
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