10 Great Artists and Authors Who Died in Poverty

Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Oscar Wilde died virtually penniless

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Great artistes are presumed to have been wealthy celebrities in their lifetime. Although a few of them gained fame and success during their careers; some lived in obscurity and even poverty throughout their lives. Herman Melville barely made a penny from Moby Dick and Rembrandt was buried as a poor man. Here are 10 brilliant artistes who died poor.


1. Vincent Van Gogh

Self-Portrait, September 1889. Musée d'Orsay, Paris Google Cultural Institute
Self-Portrait, September 1889. Musée d’Orsay, Paris Google Cultural Institute

Vincent van Gogh, the famous post-impressionist painter and regarded as the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt was poor and unknown throughout his life. He struggled with mental illness and committed suicide by shooting himself. He has created 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolours, drawings and sketches.

Irises-Vincent van Gogh
Irises-Vincent van Gogh

His Irises sold for $53.9 million, and his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million more than a 100 years after his death.


2. Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo.
Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo.

The writer, journalist and poet’s book On the Road  is an American classic that defined the Beat Generation and one of the greatest American novels of all time. Although he wrote at a prolific pace, few matched the success of On the Road . He died young at the age of 47 from an abdominal hemorrhage which resulted from a lifetime of heavy drinking. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Doors have said that Kerouac has had a significant influence on their music and lifestyles. After his death, his reputation as a writer grew and all of his books are in print today.


3. Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn - Self-Portrait - Google Art Project
Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-Portrait – Google Art Project

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is considered as one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art. He earned fame and success over his career but lived beyond his means. He buried as a poor man in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk.  After twenty years, his remains were taken away and destroyed.

His greatest works include the The Night Watch, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, The Return of the Prodigal Son among others.

Portrait of Marten Soolmans
Portrait of Marten Soolmans

His Portrait of Marten Soolmans and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit was bought by Rijksmuseum and the Louvre for approximately $180 million USD from the Rothschild family.


4. Modigliani

Photograph of Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920) Credit: Wikimedia/User:Epousesquecido
Photograph of Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920) Credit: Wikimedia/User:Epousesquecido

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was an Italian Jewish painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France. His work consisted of portraits and nudes in a modern style characterized by elongation of faces and figures. Although his work was not well received during his lifetime; it gained value after his death.

Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918 Amedeo Modigliani - The Norton Simon Museum
Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) Amedeo Modigliani – The Norton Simon Museum

Modigliani died at age 35 in Paris of tubercular meningitis. Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché sold for $170.4 million at Christie’s, New York, making it the second-highest auction price for any artwork.


5. Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, photography, ca. 1891 Credit: Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel - Museum page
Paul Gauguin, photography, ca. 1891 Credit: Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel – Museum page

Paul Gauguin abandoned his life as a stockbroker and pioneered a new style of painting known as Symbolism. He immersed himself in his work and he left his wife, his four children and lived in Tahiti for a few years. The great artist who is said to have influenced Picasso died in poverty of heart failure. His work was under appreciated and considered exotic and risqué in his time.

Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo? 1892, oil on canvas
Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo? 1892, oil on canvas

His Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892, sold for USD $300 million in 2015.


6. Edgar Allen Poe

The American writer, poet and critic was known as “Father of the Detective Story.”  He was best known for his spine-chilling works such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven. Poe had a difficult relationship with his parents and struggled with poverty and debt in his youth and the early stages of his career. Despite earning fame and success both as a writer and a critic; his gambling, alcoholism and the death of his beloved led to his demise as a poor man.


7. Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde on May 23 1889. Picture by W. and D. Downey

Oscar Wilde, who is celebrated for his excellent wit was somewhat of a celebrity in his days. His plays sold well, his work was appreciated; but he lived way beyond his means despite earning well. The author—whose famous works include classics such The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray— was imprisoned for homosexuality. He would reportedly wander around drunk in Paris and spend his last few pennies on alcohol. Three years after his release from jail, he died in poverty.


8. Herman Melville

Etching of Joseph O. Eaton's portrait of Herman Melville
Etching of Joseph O. Eaton’s portrait of Herman Melville

Melville—whose Moby Dick is regarded as one of The Hundred Greatest Books Ever Written—didn’t earn much success and fame during his lifetime. His experience as a crew member on ships enabled him to pen novels based on his adventures at sea. Despite  some early success as a writer, Melville—who was plagued with financial difficulties for a large part of his life— died a poor man with his books going out of print.


9. HP Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is known for his fantastical horror tales such as The Call of Cthulhu and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. He did not earn much during his career since his tales were published only in niche magazines. He took on editing and ghostwriting jobs to support himself financially and at one point even avoided food so he could pay for postage stamps. He died of cancer at age 46.


10. O. Henry

William Sydney Porter W.M. Vanderweyde, New York – NYPL Digital Gallery

William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen name of O. Henry, was a prolific writer of short stories that were known for their surprise endings. The author of The Gift of the Magi, The Cop and the Anthem and many more classic stories was a licensed pharmacist and a bookkeeper before he turned to writing. His alcoholism and extravagant spending habits led to his demise as a poor man at the age of 58.

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