10 Cultural Giants Who Died Coinless

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The notion of the starving artist is nothing new, and whether it was because they toiled in obscurity, were swindled or the victims of financial mismanagement, some of the most famous contributors to culture sadly perished in poverty.

1. Vincent van Gogh
Though his life was short, Vincent van Gogh left the world with almost 2000 creations, almost all of which were unappreciated in his own time (he only sold one painting during his life and was supported by his brother Theo). Despite the fact that he is now considered a master painter with an almost immeasurable impact on art and culture, Van Gogh died penniless in 1890 at the age of 37 by his own hand. He is quoted presciently observing, "I can't change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture."

2. Mathew Brady
The "Father of Photojournalism" is best known for his invaluable photographs of the American Civil War. Though he was a successful and well-known portrait photographer before the war began (Abraham Lincoln's likeness on the $5 bill is modeled after Brady's portrait of him), he spent around $100,000 during the war on his photographs, which numbered in the thousands. The pictures brought the truth and grotesque horror of the war to the doorsteps of all Americans - a marked change from the propaganda and half-truths coming from print journalists at the time. Unfortunately, after the war no one wanted to be reminded of the horrors of it, and Brady was unable to sell his photographs or recoup his losses. Eventually Congress bought his collection for a mere $2,840, but Brady's life had already been ruined by poverty and alcoholism, and he died in relative obscurity in 1896.

3. Joe Louis

The world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis is still considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time. Unfortunately, most of his fabled earnings (estimated around $4.6 million) went to his handlers. Joe Louis' extreme generosity in regards to his family (including paying back the city of Detroit all of the welfare funds his family had received), investments in failed businesses and terrible bungling of his taxes (he owed the IRS one million dollars at the end of the 1950s) by his manager's personal accountant, left Joe sorely in arrears.

Eventually, public outcry at the mistreatment of the star lead the government to ease up on their claims, allowing Louis to pay taxes in proportion to his current income, which Louis helped create by appearing as a guest quiz shows, and even as a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, although the champion died in 1981 still haunted by his debts.

4. Franz Schubert 
Like van Gogh, Schubert was exceptionally prolific in his short life as a classical composer (he died at the age of 31, just one year after the death of his contemporary, Beethoven). Also similarly to van Gogh, Schubert's works were of little interest to those of his age, and considered inferior to Bach and Beethoven. Because of his financial difficulties, Schubert often lead a rather bohemian and at time nomadic lifestyle, but it did not slow down his production. His music influenced later composers such as Brahms and Mendelssohn, and the complexity and beauty of his melodies are now thought to be on par with Mozart (you may recognize one little song of his called "Ave Maria"), solidifying his place in the canon of neglected geniuses who died in obscurity.

5. William Blake
William Blake was another artistic luminary working in obscurity in his day. Though he died poor and unknown, he did not have any debts. Blake was one of the first artists of the 18th century to rebel against Rationalism and move forward into the Romantic Age, and was unsurprisingly considered "mad" because of it. At the time of his death Wordsworth wrote of him, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake was known not only for his paintings but also for his fantastic engravings that illustrated his poetry. Despite attempts at exhibitions of his works, no interest was attracted at the time, which did not deter (thankfully) Blake from continuing to produce. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields in 1827.

6. Edgar Allan Poe
Without a doubt now one of the most recognizable names in literature, Edgar Allen Allan Poe was one of the first writers to attempt to make a living on just that, and unfortunately embodied the Romantic notion of life as a starving artist because of it. Facing a myriad of rejections early in his career, even after Poe was published (in 1839 with a volume of short stories, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque") he initially received no money for his work. Despite the relative success of stories such as "The Gold Bug," Poe was unable to make enough money to support his family. Whether attempting to start his own magazines or simply working at journals that ultimately failed, Poe's revenue stream seem to have a life-long curse of bad luck. His beloved wife died in 1847, and two years later Poe was hospitalized and died in utter poverty under famously mysterious circumstances.

7. Oscar Wilde 
Though Wilde was a celebrity of the age and his works sold well, he was known to have extravagant spending habits. After his imprisonment he had been given a very small yearly allowance from the estate of his deceased wife, and was not helped at all by his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, who had at that time just inherited a large sum. Living essentially in poverty in Paris, he was known to wander, bumping into old friends and spending what little cash remained on alcohol. Reportedly, when a doctor attending to him during his last days asked to be paid for his services, Wilde joked that he would die as he had lived - beyond his means.

8. Sammy Davis, Jr.
The famous Rat Pack singer is reported to have made over $50 million in his lifetime, but died in 1990 $15 million in debt (much of it, like in the case of Joe Louis, was owed to the IRS). Though he made around $1 million a year at the height of his career, the notorious "swinging world" of the Rat Pack nearly bankrupted Davis.

According to Matt Birkbeck's book "Deconstructing Sammy," Davis actually rejected surgery in 1989 on his throat that may have saved him, because of his dismal finances. He reasoned that without his voice he couldn't sing and therefore couldn't make any more money. Birkbeck spoke to NPR in 2008 to talk about Sammy's regrettable decline from superstardom to poverty.

9. Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer was a 17th-century painter with eleven children, massive debt and a habit of working very slowly and painstakingly on his paintings (the most famous of which is probably the "Girl With a Pearl Earring"). After his death some of his paintings (he created about 40 in his lifetime) were sold with the names of other artists on them to make them more valuable. It took three centuries for Vermeer to be recognized as a master painter of the Dutch Golden Age for his use of light, tranquility and the unusual subject matter of peasants that populated his works. Though he did have patrons who paid him, he never made much and lived on the verge of poverty much of his life, eventually leaving his family in debt when he died at age 43.

10. Stephen Foster
Though you may not be familiar with Stephen Foster's name, you undoubtedly know his songs. Foster is considered the "Father of American Music," penning the works "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Oh! Susanna" among many others, some of which function as current state songs. Foster's melodies were popular in his time (and remain so today, despite some controversy), and he wished to make a living as a professional songwriter. Unfortunately, the lack of copyright laws or a structure for the payment of royalties meant Foster made very little to nothing on performances and reprints of his work. Foster died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.

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June 17, 2011 - 2:03pm
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