The art world we know is studded with success stories— we’re very much aware of those artists who gained prominence, rose to the top and became a point of reference in their field, whether in visual arts, music or theater. But behind every famous name are countless artists who failed: Artists who were unable to develop successful art careers and win the attention—or the appreciation— that their work deserved. Artists who, perhaps, didn’t even care whether their work became better known. Even so, there are scores of artists who achieved success long after their deaths. We take a look at five artists who failed at first, and found success with a particular vision.
Failure Shaped Their Art Careers
Today we know Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848 ~ 1903) as one of the most famous post-impressionist artists. His work is understood as part of a great shift towards more symbolic abstraction, as well as the use of “primitive” subject-matter, serving as an inspiration for artists after him. But this is a legacy that Gauguin was never able to witness. During his lifetime, he was unappreciated and spent a portion of his life as a stockbroker, all the while maintaining his art practice. The French artist passed away before his rise to fame due to syphilis at the age of 54. Gauguin began by attempting to develop a style of “synthesis,” which involved a collaboration of color, composition and subject matter, bringing together the qualities of Impressionism as well as invoking the life of his subjects. Gauguin’s personal focus became clearer after he visited Panama in 1888, and was able to observe what were, at the time, referred to as “primitive cultures”. Through his direct observations, he was able to develop his unique interpretation of natural environments through a vibrant palette that, for its time, practically radiated psychedelic energy. This energy can be seen in the painting “The Day of the Gods” (1894) which depicts several women in different positions of work or rest on a bright and technicolored beach. Their images are a reflection of Gauguin’s digression from impressionism, a digression that allowed a younger generation pursuing art careers some guidance through his abstract and somewhat supernatural aesthetic in painting.
Another post-impressionist artist who failed – a painter whose work became well known only after his death – was French artist Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859 ~ 1891). Seurat would come to be known as the pioneer of pointillism, a painting technique that involves the careful and detailed accumulation of small, different-colored dots to create a larger image. Rather than conform to simply depicting observed colors, Seurat’s technique was to construct a manner by which to capture all the colors that wove within one another. Through this pointillism technique, Seurat sought to render the seemingly mundane and unchanging aspects of life. This atmosphere is obvious in Seurat’s most famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” (1884). The painting is large, depicting a tranquil scene of figures peppered across a shaded island, evoking a sense of serenity—as well as of stagnancy. Seurat’s pointillism was able to create a kind of partnership within the disparate styles of post-impressionism being produced at that time, and ultimately left a lasting impact on the artists who were to follow.
Many art movements evolved from post-impressionism, including abstract expressionism and conceptual art. One artist who chose to watch those movements develop and then created her own expressive style was American painter Alice Neel (1900 ~ 1984). Neel’s figurative-based practice was an attempt to capture the psychological state of her subjects, primarily individuals—many of them friends and family—living in New York. Her refusal to follow traditional styles and contemporary movements was visible in her choice of non-traditional subject matter relating to race, gender, sex, and social status. Neel made a point of observing each of her subjects with unwavering truth using a hard, vibrant palette. Despite this, her work was largely unappreciated during her lifetime. She remained focused on figurative painting and portraiture in an art world that was, in the early 20th century, largely favoring abstraction. One of her best-known paintings, “Carlos Enriquez” (1926), is a portrait of the artist’s husband. Although the subject is essentially that of a seated man, the exaggeration of the man’s features and the darkness of the palette evoke a psychological depth that goes beyond the deceptive simplicity of the composition. Only in the last two decades of her life did Neel’s name gradually take on prominence. Largely impelled by the feminist movement, Neel’s unflinching realism came to light.
American photographer Vivian Maier (1926 ~ 2009) was a street photographer whose work depicts the cityscapes of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. During her lifetime, Maier’s photos were unknown and unpublished; many of what amounted to be about 30,000 negatives were never even printed. For Maier, photography was something she pursued in her spare time while she worked as a full-time nanny. Two years before her death, her massive body of work came to light when it was discovered by collector John Maloof at a local thrift auction house in Chicago. Despite this discovery, her work only aroused a tepid reception from art gallerists and consultants, until it was brought to the public eye in 2009. Maier’s imagery is reminiscent of other famous 20th century photographers, such as Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, but her work reflects more profound observations of societal functions and interactions within city environments.
One photo taken in 1954 in New York City captures the gestures of two women and a little girl mid-stride, walking down a busy sidewalk. Despite the bustle of the city around them, the eye is drawn to the interaction between the three figures and the slight shadow of Maier’s shadow at the bottom of the image. The composition injects a pause, a distinct element of calm over the image. This form of composition in her work, as well as the true nature of the streets that were displayed in her photos, led them to gain critical acclaim and interest in the years soon after her death and reshaped the perception of working full-time while endeavoring in photographic art careers.
Known primarily for her massive multi-layered painting, “The Rose,” American artist Jay DeFeo (1929 ~ 1989) led relatively unsuccessful art careers during her lifetime. Now, in posthumous recognition, her work is housed in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and others. She has been labeled an Abstract Expressionist, but did not personally identify with any movement. Rather, her work reflects the influences of abstract expressionism and manages to incorporate sculptural aspects of architecture. DeFeo spent eight years working on “The Rose,” (1958-1966) which involved applying thick layers of oil paint that the artist herself referred to as “a marriage between painting and sculpture”. Now in the Whitney, this one-ton work is beautiful yet ominous as it towers over the viewer, casting shadows within itself due to the sheer depth of its making. DeFeo is widely considered to have been under-recognized in the canon of American art, and her 2013 retrospective at the Whitney Museum brought her the overdue attention she deserved.
While it seems there is little in common between these two Frenchmen from the 19th century and the three American women from the 20th century, we can see how the definition of a successful artist and how an artist’s work is accepted can change and evolve. Each of these artists who failed encountered indifference in their art careers, only to have their work revered later in their lives or after their deaths. Today, social media and sharing platforms are providing greater, more immediate access to the works of emerging artists. For artists, the potential for recognition and success is greater than ever.