The reward for any artist for his work is appreciation. Though money does count, an artist seeks admiration and acknowledgment for his work the most. However, there are a few who gain both only after their demise. This Historyplex article compiles a list of artists who became famous after death.
What does posthumous mean?
“Following or occurring after death.”
― Merriam-Webster dictionary
“Why so serious?” asks Joker to Batman. This arch-enemy of our beloved dark superhero captured our attention with his green hair, white face, red lips, mad eyes, and carefree attitude. Several actors have portrayed this nemesis of a character from Batman comic books (by Detective Comics). However, there is only one actor comes to mind when Joker’s name comes up. It is none other than Australian actor Heath Ledger. If others have portrayed this character, Ledger has lived it.
Ledger’s career as an actor in Hollywood comprises only nineteen films. He received awards and appreciations during his career, but after his death in 2008 due to an accidental overdose of prescribed drugs, his popularity skyrocketed. The movie The Dark Knight in which he played a delirious and unhinged, yet an equally intelligent Joker was released after his death. His performance in the movie won millions of hearts and made him famous all over the world.
There are other such artists too, who gained little or no appreciation of their work during their lifetime, but achieved accolades after their sad demise. We have come up with instances of some writers, composers, musicians, and painters.
Edgar Allan Poe
Henry David Thoreau
Johann Sebastian Bach
Vincent van Gogh
Writers Who Found Success Posthumously
Edgar Allan Poe
Description: The master of dark and eerie, Edgar Allan Poe had struggled to obtain real success or recognition. His now-popular novel The Raven was sold for a mere $9 during his lifetime. After his death, he became famous for introducing a new style and theme of writing in the literary world.
Famous Quote: “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
Description: Stieg Larsson is best known for his Millennium trilogy, which includes novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. However, these crime novels were published after his death in 2004.
Famous Quote: “I am not altogether confident of my ability to put my thoughts into words: My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them, and I am used to both editing and being edited. Which is to say that I am not oversensitive in such matters.”
Description: Plath tasted some popularity during her lifetime. However, it was after her last and successful suicide attempt that she garnered more attention. Her collection of poems was published almost 20 years later after her death, which won her the Pulitzer Prize.
Famous Quote: “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
Description: It is said that she never intended to publish the manuscript of her notes. However, after her death by drowning, it was published as a book The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. The book made her a household name instantly.
Description: Extremely shy and an introvert, Emily Dickinson was not someone who would pursue popularity. Only eight of her poems were published during her lifetime. The remaining 1,800 poems, which were hidden deliberately by the poet, were published posthumously. These poems are now considered among the best literary pieces.
Famous Quote: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Henry David Thoreau
Description: During his lifetime, Thoreau was never understood by people. He loved to live in the woods, in sync with nature, and was a simpleton. He always propagated this concept. Though he is said to have written over 900 books, only two were published during his lifetime. However, his ideas and work influenced many people after his death, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Famous Quote: “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
John Kennedy Toole
Description: Toole committed suicide at the age of 31 possibly due to the failure of selling his manuscript. The manuscript was posthumously published by his mother. This comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Famous Quote: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” – A Confederacy of Dunces
Description: Now considered as the most influential existentialist writer of the 20th century, Franz Kafka never received fame when he was alive. Publishers never accepted his work, and it was never taken seriously as existentialism was thought to be revolutionary at that time. Before his death, Kafka asked his friend to destroy his work. However, his friend published the work, and the later generations came to know how brilliant Kafka was.
Famous Quote: “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Lived: 1929- 1945
Description: Anne Frank not only became famous after her death, but she became famous because of her death. One of the victims of the Holocaust, Frank is known today for her diary in which she poured her heart and described the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Famous Quote: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
Description: Darger was considered as a mentally challenged person who lived a recluse life in Chicago. It was after his death that the landlords found his drawing, collages, and manuscripts. His posthumously published fantasy novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion earned him all the fame he deserved.
Description: Though Jane Austen received a certain degree of recognition and fame during her lifetime, it was after her death that her works received more attention. Several adaptions were made of her novels, making her popular worldwide.
Famous Quote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ― Pride and Prejudice
Description: Though he reaped early success, Melville’s popularity took a nosedive soon after. He worked as a custom inspector on the New York docks for a secure income. It was after his death that his magnum opus “Moby-Dick” was considered as one of the best literary masterpieces.
Famous Quote: “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
Description: Keats is considered as one of the masters of romantic poetry. However, during his lifetime, he never received much critical acclaim. It was after his death at the age of 25, that his poems began to gain appreciation.
Famous Quote: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Description: Hurston was criticized for Southern Black vernacular in her writing. The character that she presented in her books was also considered as caricatured. However, it was after her death that there was a revival of her writings, which made her gain popularity.
Famous Quote: “Love, I find, is like singing. Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much.”
Description: Though many of her works were published during her lifetime, it was decade later after her death she was termed as the leading author of her time. Kate Chopin is now considered as the forerunner of the feminists.
Famous Quote: “There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water.”
Posthumously Famous Musicians
Description: American singer and guitarist Eva Cassidy was not so well-known during her lifetime. It was after almost three years after her death that her work became known and was liked by one and all.
Famous Quote: “Someday I’ll wish upon a star, And wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops. Away above the chimney tops. That’s where you’ll find me.”
Description: English singer, songwriter, and musician Nick Drake tasted moderate popularity in his lifetime. However, after his death at the age of 26, he and his work gained more popularity.
Description: Robert Johnson died young and in obscurity with only two albums sold in his lifetime. He did not gain much notice when he was alive. However, it was after his death that he was considered as one of the original hotshots of the Blues music. In due course of time, it added to his fame.
Famous Quote: “History has always been a series of pendulum swings, but the individual doesn’t have to get caught in that.”
Description: Kurt Cobain prospered with his band called Nirvana. However, his medication fixation, divorce, and untimely death made him a star than he already was. It contributed in selling countless of his records.
Famous Quote: “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”
Description: English singer, songwriter, and a part of the popular band The Beatles, John Lennon enjoyed much popularity during his lifetime. His murder contributed to his popularity as well. He was placed in Songwriters Hall of Fame posthumously.
Famous Quote: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
Composers Who Became Famous After Death
Johann Sebastian Bach
Description: Bach is considered as a renowned music composer if we think of names today. However, it wasn’t like that in his lifetime. He was known as an organist at his time. His fame began to exceed as a music composer only after his death.
Famous Quote: “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.”
Description: Like Bach, an English music composer Delius received appreciation and fame for his work after his death.
Famous Quote: “Music is an outburst of the soul.”
Posthumously Famous Painters
Description: Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, was famous for using his original style to paint religious subjects. His works were often ignored or criticized during his time. It was in the 20th century that his works began to receive due appreciation, and he was considered as the painter ahead of his time.
Famous Quote: “I suffer for my art and despise the witless moneyed scoundrels who praise it.”
Description: Claude Monet with other painters placed the cornerstone of an artistic movement called Impressionism. He deviated from the set norms of painting and used his own style to paint day-to-day subjects. This led to mockery of his work during his lifetime. His paintings gained appreciation only after his demise.
Famous Quote: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
Description: Vermeer was known for his portraits and paintings that depicted middle-class life. Though he achieved some fame during his life, he could not transform it into monetary gain. It was after his death that Vermeer became famous for his masterpieces.
Vincent van Gogh
Description: Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular and influential painters of all time. However, it wasn’t the case when he was alive. It was after his suicide that his paintings gained recognition.
Famous Quote: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
Description: Like Gogh, Paul Gauguin received appreciation after his death. Later, he was considered as an influential 19th century Post-Impressionist.
Famous Quote: “I shut my eyes in order to see.”
Description: Paul Cézanne led the foundation of transition of art from the 19th century to the 20th. It was after his demise that he gained acclaim to bridge the gap between the art styles of two centuries.
Famous Quote: “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.”
Description: After Seurat’s death, he received recognition for his creative style and different painting techniques. Even today, he is considered as a trend-setting artist of the Post-Impressionist movement.
Famous Quote: “Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Description: Like the majority of Post-Impressionist movement painters, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec never received fame, appreciation, and recognition during his lifetime. It was after his death that his mother and his art dealer began promoting his artwork so that it received its due recognition.
Famous Quote: “I have tried to do what is true and not ideal.”