“People claim to want to do something that matters,” Ryan Holiday, author of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts once said, “yet they measure themselves against things that don’t, and track their progress not in years but in microseconds. They want to make something timeless, but they focus instead on immediate payoffs and instant gratification.” In a culture hysterically obsessed with overnight success, a movie is a flop if it doesn’t become an immediate hit at the box office and a book is a humiliating failure if it never tops best-seller lists. But haven’t all of the most enduring works of art, the most innovative ideas, historically taken time to gain popularity? After all, how many copies did The Great Gatsby sell in its first year? (The quintessential classic of American literature, worshipped in high school classrooms everywhere, by the way, only sold a meager 20,000 copies.) Truly revolutionary works of art very rarely meet critical acceptance or enthusiastic fanfare— at least, not at first. They’re too peculiar, too strange, too novel, too weird. When something’s original— really original— it’s never been seen before. Hence why so many things we consider masterpieces today were dismissed and derided when they first appeared.
Rather than judge our work by shortsighted measures of success— buzz or hype or number of copies sold— why not take the long view? Many artists have been rebuffed by publication after publication, shunned by the critics, suffered and starved, only for their work to be recognized years— sometimes centuries— later. The mark of a visionary is to be ahead of his time, a quality that unfortunately often dooms him to obscurity in his own era.
Is this meant to scare you from seeking life as an artist? Absolutely not. I do not want to perpetuate the suffering artist myth, that rampant misconception that to be an artist is to go mad and die broke and alone. I want to share these artists’ stories below to encourage and uplift you, to remind you that even undeniable geniuses like Kafka and Van Gogh were’t always considered so.
1. Vincent Van Gogh
It is well known that Van Gogh died in relative obscurity. Despite his prolific creative output (he’s estimated to have produced 850 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches during his brief artistic career), the troubled artist only sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime. In many ways, he epitomized the archetypal “starving artist”: doomed to destitution by his unswerving commitment to his art, tormented by mental illness, tortured by a string of catastrophic love affairs. Among the general public he is best known for chopping off his own ear. Like many of the most pioneering minds in human history, Van Gogh’s life was a sad series of failures. “A great fire burns within me but no one stops to warm themselves at it,” he once lamented, “and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” The idea that he’d never garner validation for his life’s work was devastating to the sensitive soul, who spent untold hours using paint to translate his unprecedented vision of the world.
His tragic demise might not have been splattered across the morning papers when he committed suicide in 1890 but thanks to the tireless efforts of his sister-in-law, Jo Van Gogh Bonger, Van Gogh did eventually secure the place in artistic history he so indisputably deserved. Today his paintings rank among some of the most revered in the world. His once obscure “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” for example, sold for a record-breaking $82.5 million one hundred years after it was first composed.
Lesson? Like Van Gogh, we must have the courageousness to persist— even if we’re nobodies in the eyes of the world. “What am I in the eyes of most people,” the impassioned painter once wrote, “a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low…All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
2. Franz Kafka
Kafka may be one of the few literary luminaries whose name has attained the impressive distinction of both noun and adjective, but he too only achieved fame after death. After graduating with a law degree from the Charles Ferdinand University of Prague in 1906, Kafka began his career at an Italian insurance company, a demanding job he’d come to despise and quit after only a year. Hoping to find a position more conducive to writing, he eventually stumbled upon a job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. From morning to early afternoon, Kafka spent his days investigating the insurance claims of industrial workers injured on the job. In an age before strict safety regulations, losing fingers and limbs was such a regular occurrence that there was no shortage of claims for Kafka to sift through. At 2 pm after fulfilling his duties at the insurance company, the aspiring author would settle in at his desk to write. It was this he considered his true work.
Despite his literary ambitions, Kafka published few works during his brief life, most of which were only appreciated by a small literary coterie and never earned him widespread renown. Indeed, Kafka possessed such misgivings about his work that he requested all his writing be burned, unread, upon his death. Thankfully when he perished from tuberculosis in 1924, his good friend and literary executor Max Brod recognized his immense talent and disregarded his wishes, publishing his masterpieces The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika in short succession.
Today Kafka is hailed as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers. A brooding existentialist with a taste for the absurd, he’s best known for capturing the alienation of the modern era. “The 20th century,” Brod correctly foresaw, “will one day be known as the century of Kafka.”
Edgar Allan Poe’s life was marred by tragedy. The maestro of the macabre never knew his birth parents: his father, David Poe Jr., abandoned the family when he was two while his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Orphaned, Poe was eventually adopted by John Allan, a successful tobacco merchant, and his wife Frances Valentine. Though Poe seemed to have an affectionate bond with his foster mother, he had a more turbulent relationship with John, who disapproved of the young boy’s literary aspirations and hoped he’d some day take over the family business. So strained did their relationship become that when John died in 1834, he left nothing for his adopted son.
Despite the sad string of misfortunes that struck his personal life, Poe did glimpse some professional recognition in his lifetime. In December 1835, he joined the staff at the Southern Literary Messenger where he established a reputation as a ruthless literary critic. In addition to his criticism, Poe published horror, poetry, essays and short fiction, many of which— including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”— would go on to become perennial classics of American literature. But it was the immortal lines— “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”— that solidified his literary eminence forever. Though the 1845 publication of “The Raven” made him a household name, Poe still struggled to support himself financially and died broke after being found in an alleyway like a common drunkard.
More than one and a half centuries later, the impact of Poe’s legacy on literature is inestimable. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was inventing the detective genre. His brilliant private eye C. Auguste Dupin would provide the prototype for such famous literary sleuths as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Much like his artistic successors, Dupin is an unusually perceptive— if bit eccentric— detective whose observational powers and deductive prowess help him solve the unsolvable. In the Dupin stories, Poe introduced the conventions that would come to define the detective genre: “The elements Poe invented, such as the reclusive genius detective, his ‘ordinary’ helper, the impossible crime, the incompetent police force, the armchair detection, the locked room mystery, have become firmly embedded in most mystery novels of today,” historians Helena Marković and Biliana Oklopčić write. Why did this genre become so popular in Poe’s day? The methodical detective who deciphered the “who-dun-it” and brought lawbreakers to justice appealed to the Enlightenment audience, who took pleasure in seeing reason triumph over wrongdoing. In addition, the figure of the lone detective unravelling enigmas that stumped even police spoke to a particularly American brand of renegade individualism. Today, the sort of murder mysteries Poe originated have inspired everyone from crime TV networks to Alfred Hitchcock.