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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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15 Facts About Franz Marc's Yellow Cow
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To gaze upon German Expressionist Franz Marc's Yellow Cow is to take in a surreal and spirited painting, alive with color. But within its bold brush strokes and envelope-pushing aesthetic lies the unexpected story of a complicated love between two artists, and the path that led them together.

1. YELLOW COW IS WILDLY DIFFERENT FROM FRANZ MARC'S EARLY WORKS.

Philosophy student-turned-painter Franz Marc attended the Munich Academy of Art during the turn of the 20th century. There, he studied natural realism, striving to capture his subjects in portraits true to dimension, gesture, and color. In 1902, he created Portrait of the Artist's Mother, which immortalized homemaker and devout Calvinist Sophie Marc. Sitting in profile, she leans over a book, reading by the light of an unseen lantern. Though Marc would become known for his vibrant color choices, here he favored darker shades that gave the painting a flat appearance, and a somber mood.

2. YELLOW COW'S CREATION WAS INSPIRED BY GERMAN NUDISTS.

In the early 20th century, Germany was in the midst of a back-to-nature movement, which saw several new artist collectives and nudist colonies pop up around the country. This celebration of the glory of the land and its natural inhabitants spoke to Marc, who later explained, "People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me."

3. HE VIEWED ANIMALS AS GOD-LIKE CREATURES.

Like the naturalists, Marc came to value the rural wonders of the country. He abandoned the bustle and urban intellectualism of Munich, and sought the spirituality and peace he believed could be found in living simply, as animals do. He began to think of them as having a "god-like presence and power." In a 1908 letter, Marc attempted to detail how this belief was informing his work, writing, "I am trying to intensify my ability to sense the organic rhythm that beats in all things, to develop a pantheistic sympathy for the trembling flow of blood in nature, in trees, in animals, in air—I am trying to make a picture of it … with colors which make a mockery of the old kind of studio picture."

4. ANIMALS BECAME A SIGNATURE MOTIF FOR MARC.

This is an image of Dog Lying in the Snow by Franz Marc
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By 1907, Marc was focusing his work on capturing the spiritualism found in animals. Other notable works in the vein include The Fox, Dog Lying In The Snow, The Little Blue Horses, The Red Bull, Little Monkey, Monkey Frieze, Wild Boars in the Water, and The Tiger.

5. YELLOW COW IS A VERY LARGE PAINTING.

Measuring 55 3/8 by 74 1/2 inches, it's nearly 5 by 6 feet wide.

6. MARC DEVELOPED HIS OWN COLOR SYMBOLISM.

This is an image of Self-portrait by August Macke.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Colors would recur in Marc's work and speak to different emotions or themes. In 1910, he explained his use of color in a letter to friend and colleague, artist August Macke. Marc wrote, "Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay, and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color to be opposed and overcome by the other two."

7. YELLOW COW MIGHT BE AN UNCONVENTIONAL WEDDING PORTRAIT.

Exploring the painter's works and statements on his use of color, art historian Mark Rosenthal declared that the frolicking cow is actually a veiled depiction of Marc's second wife Maria Franck, while the distant blue mountains are meant to represent the painter himself. Painted the same year the couple were married, it times out to potentially be representative of their nuptials. The blending of the blue into the cow's spots suggests the joining of masculine and feminine.

8. FRANCK WAS A RECURRING MUSE FOR HER LOVER.

In 1906, before they were married, Marc had sketched a more traditional portrait of his wife-to-be, titled simply Mädchenkopf, which translates—rather unsentimentally—to "girl's head." That same year, he captured Franck in the abstract painting Two Women on the Hillside. Later, he created Maria Franck in a White Cap.

9. MARC AND FRANCK HAD A COMPLICATED ROMANCE.

An artist in her own right, Franck met Marc at a costume ball in Schwabing, Germany. The pair hit it off, and also befriended illustrator Marie Schnür, resulting in a shared Bavarian summer of creativity (and rumored three-way trysts). Schnür was the other woman who modeled for Two Women on the Hillside, as well as the other woman captured in a NSFW photo from their formative season in the sun. Marc ended up marrying both women, starting with Schnür.

Theirs was a marriage of convenience, meant to aid her in securing custody of her bastard baby boy, whom she had with another man. Details on this marriage are scant beyond that it was brief, lasting from 1907 to 1908. However, because Schnür accused Marc of infidelity, he was barred from remarrying until a special dispensation was granted, which took years. So while Marc and Franck had tried to wed in 1911, their official "I do" didn't come until June 3, 1913, in Munich.

10. TWO WOMEN ON THE HILLSIDE WAS A SIGN OF MARC'S TRANSITION TO HIS SIGNATURE STYLE.

This is an image of Two Women on the Hillside by Franz Marc.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Looking back on 1906's Two Women on the Hillside, it seems to foretell Yellow Cow. Depicting the two women who, in their own ways, would inspire Yellow Cow, Marc moved away from the German realist art he studied in college. Instead, looser brush strokes speak to Post-Impressionist interests, and the willful abstractness of its subjects predicts the evolving German expressionism movement of which he would become a part. It also shows repetition in the lines—of the woman's hip to the hill beyond—that would be revisited in Yellow Cow, whose haunches mirror the rise and fall of the mountains behind her.

11. YELLOW COW WAS A PART OF THE DER BLAUE REITER ART MOVEMENT.

Named for a Wassily Kandinsky painting, this movement boasted members like Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, and Gabriele Münter. Der Blaue Reiter (translating to The Blue Rider) had no hard manifesto, but its members shared a common urge to express spiritualism through their work, and often specifically through color. Turned away from exhibitions, they toured with their own, and published an almanac that celebrated contemporary, primitive, and folk art, along with children's paintings.

12. DER BLAUE REITER WAS DEVASTATED BY WORLD WAR I.

The Blue Rider movement only lasted from 1911 to 1914, in large part because the tensions growing between nations chased Russian artists back to their homeland, while Germans, including Marc and Macke, were conscripted into military service. As these artistic colleagues scattered, their movement faded. But it proved fundamental to the evolving Expressionism, and its works would remain.

13. MARC DID NOT LIVE TO SEE HIS LEGACY SECURED.

Marc's animal paintings would go on to awe viewers for decades to come. They'd become coveted by collectors and museums. And a plaque would be placed on the Munich home where he was born, remembering him as a founder of Der Blaue Reiter. But Marc was killed on March 4, 1916, during the Battle of Verdun. He was 36 years old.

14. FRANCK SAW TO IT THAT HIS WORKS WOULD BE PRESERVED.

This is an image of art historian, Klaus Lankheit.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marc's widow gave records of his life and writing to German art historian Klaus Lankheit. She called on German writer/gallery owner Herwarth Walden to exhibit her late husband's works in a posthumous show in October of 1916. While continuing to create and exhibit her own work, she collected Marc's letters from the war's front, and in 1920 had them published in a two-volume book called Briefe, Aufzeichnungen und Aphorismen (translating to Letters, Records, and Aphorisms). According to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where a copy of each is preserved, "The first volume contains letters written from September 1914 to March 1916 as well as records alongside color plates, and the second presents the artist’s sketchbook." Franck preserved Marc's legacy in whatever way she could, and in doing so, gave him to the world.

15. YELLOW COW IS REMEMBERED AS A JOYFUL MASTERPIECE.

While it might not sound complimentary to compare your wife to a cow, the consensus on Yellow Cow is that it signifies the happiness and bliss Marc's bond with Franck brought to his life. The bovine's bright colors are jubilant and yet the colors of her body jibe with those in her environment. She belongs here. Her pose is enthusiastic and bold—almost dance-like. If you look closely, you can even see a small smile play across her lips. It's an unusual love letter, but one that's outlived its lovers, and now hangs on the walls of the Guggenheim in New York City, to inspire many more.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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