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My favorite posthumously famous artists.

Fame is hard to come by no matter what, and maybe especially for artists. If what you care most about is making work that means something to you, that’s not looking to impress patrons, agents, journalists, or fans, you might get around to achieving household-name recognition—in your lifetime. A lot of artists have created work just for themselves (or, in some cases, for their spirit guides) in secrecy, hoarding away their work in dusty boxes and drawers, which is only unearthed years after their deaths—sometimes to major critical acclaim. These people worked on faith alone, which is so much bigger than the approval of critics and museums.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists whose talents were recognized only years after they created their work, hidden far away from the public eye.

Henry Darger

Henry Darger was an American writer and illustrator whose crazy watercolor paintings of fantasy worlds filled with armies of angelic/demonic butterfly girls became known only after his death in 1973. Working in isolation his whole life, Darger penned and illustrated an epic, 15,145-page manuscript with the epic title The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Set in the fictional nation of Abbieanna, Realms of the Unreal focused on the seven young Vivian Girls, who rebel against a government that imposes child slavery.

An eccentric recluse who made his living as a custodian, Darger honed his artistic skills in secrecy, creating his masterpiece over the course of 43 years. If it weren’t for Darger’s landlord, Nathan Lerner, who found the artwork in Darger’s apartment after he died, the world may have never known the menacing beauty of this work.

Connie Converse

Born Elizabeth Converse, Converse ditched college in Massachusetts (and her strict Baptist upbringing) halfway through to head to bohemian New York City in the 1950’s, started calling herself Connie, and began writing and performing music. Her music caught the ear of Gene Deitch, a recording engineer, who began recording Converse’s songs. Although she performed briefly on Walter Cronkite’s Morning Show on CBS, her music never really took off, probably because everyone was too stupid to realize how amazing it was. Her songs were minimalist—just Converse and her guitar—and tragically ahead of their time (by the 1960s, the stripped-down singer-songwriter folk revival was hot shit). I often wonder whether if Converse had waited just a few years to pitch her music to labels, she would be a household name today. That’s a thought that just makes me frowwwn.

In 1961, just a few years before I truly believe she would have been a huge sensation, Converse gave us on her dreams and moved to Michigan, where she edited an academic journal until 1974, when she wrote to her family and friends, saying she wanted a new life, packed up her Volkswagen Beetle and…totally disappeared. In 2009, a collection of Converse’s songs, called How Sad, How Lovely, was released, and her music finally got the respect it deserved.

Converse worked so hard on her music; she put her heart and soul into it, and you can hear them in it. Her parents never supported her—in fact they outright told her they didn’t care about her art and didn’t approve of her “liberal city lifestyle”—and the music industry rejected her too. I have imagined endless possibilities as to where Converse drove off to in 1974, and what she did for the rest of her life. And whether that life is still going on today.

Maud Lewis

Maud Lewis was born in Nova Scotia in 1906. Because of a variety of physical ailments including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she felt estranged from other kids growing up, and found great pleasure in spending time alone painting Christmas cards, which her mother helped her sell.

When Maud was 34, she fell in love with and married a stoic fish peddler named Everett Lewis. By then her physical afflictions had worsened, to the point where it was impossible for her to do housework. Instead, she kept painting. Everett would sell her Christmas cards door to door as he peddled fish. Everett always encouraged his wife to paint; though the couple lived in poverty, he bought Maud her first set of oil paints. This is like the stuff of Oprah episodes, right?

Soon Maud was working on any surface she could get her hands on, painting and drawing all over the surfaces inside and outside the tiny house she shared with Everett. The heavily decorated house is actually now on display, in its entirety, in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Maud’s paintings of daily life and nature (she loved to depict lakes, forests, farms, and animals) are rare treasures. When I get frustrated with the state of contemporary art (e.g., assistants making mass-produced art) I think of Maud and her uncontrolled dedication to hand-painting beauty. She rules.

Vivian Maier

While Vivian Maier was alive (1926-2009), she was known mainly as a nanny, a position she held with a few different families for about 40 years. But unbeknownst to her employers, friends, and family, while she was carrying out her duties as a caretaker, she was constantly shooting street photos of rare insight and beauty, which she hid from everybody, just collecting the negatives (over 100,000 of them) in a box, where they remained undiscovered until 2007, when a young real estate agent named John Maloof found them while doing some research for a book about the neighborhood of Portage Park.

Maloof instantly recognized Maier’s genius and bought the whole collection, but it took him two more years to track her down, by way of her 2009 obituary in the Chicago Tribune.

Maier is one of my favorite photographers, mostly because of the unpretentious and evanescent nature of her photographs. She was the first great street photographer, interested mainly in recording real life in all its quotidien beauty, and she didn’t discriminate when choosing her subjects. She photographed crying babies and the elderly, fancily dressed heiresses as well as people who lived on the street. Every single one of her photos has that kind of fleeting and unplanned energy that every street photographer tries to capture today—but now one has ever bested her. Maier was also always taking pictures of herself as reflected in mirrors, store windows, and the like. Everyone takes cellphone selfies these days to text to people or post on Instagram or what have you; I wonder whom Vivian’s self-portraits, which she never showed to anyone, and many of which she never even developed, were for?

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28 Comments

  • MegW December 28th, 2012 7:21 PM

    I LOVE Robert Johnson, especially because he’s from Mississippi, like me! The Crossroads is a pretty awesome place.

  • myy December 28th, 2012 7:24 PM

    eeeeeeee! Robert Johnson is my hero!!!!! I grew up to his music and the mystery and myth of his life has always enchanted me and made his music all the more alluring. He also had such an amazing sense of time and rhythm…I just started playing the guitar and my mission is to be able to play all of his songs on acoustic. Hopefully I’ll be able to do them justice.
    What a great list of artists . . . thanks Hazel!

  • darksideoftherainbow December 28th, 2012 7:39 PM

    hazel, i love your writing so much. it’s so smart and just a real pleasure to read. i feel like reading a post by you helps me to relax. it’s weird, i just find it soothing in a way. anyways, i really loved every single thing about this. i really enjoyed learning about artists i hadn’t heard of before and seeing or hearing their art. thank you so much. this post makes me want to cry in a good way.

  • 062131 December 28th, 2012 7:53 PM

    I think I just fell in love with Sibylle Baier’s voice and music.

    I had read about Henry Darger, but only some minor facts (like that the girls in his story had penises) but never saw these beautiful illustrations! I’m trying to find out more about him now. I wonder if his book is a good read… or too long for me.

  • Eryn December 28th, 2012 7:55 PM

    Ahhh, I first heard of Sibylle Baier through a post of yours on tumblr, and I fell in love! Thank you so much for making my world sound sweeter.

  • Ladymia69 December 28th, 2012 8:14 PM

    Wonderful. Just wonderful.

  • tellyawhat December 28th, 2012 8:25 PM

    Neat! I’m so happy to learn about Madge and Vivian. Sybille has always been a favorite!

    http://www.tellyawhat.com/2011/05/sibylle.html

  • llamalina December 28th, 2012 8:46 PM

    Didn’t Edgar Allan Poe only become famous posthumously, or am I just imagining that? Oh well. For some reason, this article makes me really, really sad. I wonder how these deceased people would feel about the recognition their work has received, and whether they’d be pleased or upset.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • AnaRuiz December 28th, 2012 9:08 PM

    Van Gogh!

    Anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • saralovering December 28th, 2012 9:18 PM

    I am super interested in street photography and for christmas my dad gave me the Vivian Maier Street Photographer book. It is amazing and I am so impressed with my dad for finding her even before Rookie! I love this article because I am worried about never ‘making it’ as an artist, but this gives me hope that even after I am gone I still have a chance. thanks Rookie <3

  • Megjane December 29th, 2012 12:32 AM

    Really enjoyed reading about all these secret artists :) I listed to some of Connie’s music and its really beautiful. Thank you!

  • Mary the freak December 29th, 2012 6:48 AM

    oh my, this is so great. I LOVE connie converse, her voice is so beautiful and amazing. Listening to her songs somehow makes me feel like floating on a cloud through the whole world. Thank you for introducing me to those awesome people! <33

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Eleanor December 29th, 2012 9:59 AM

    DARGER!!!!!!!!!!! love u hazel <3

  • Ling Ling December 29th, 2012 11:44 AM

    Henry Darger’s illustrations are really beautiful. Thanks Rookie <3

    http://moonandtheyewtree.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Hecubot December 29th, 2012 1:49 PM

    Excellent piece with lots of discoveries mixed in with old favorites.

  • Tyknos93 December 29th, 2012 6:08 PM

    AHH Henry Darger! I’ve had In the Realms of Make Believe checked out for over a month! It’s amazing and his story is so eerie and beautiful. I’ve been wanting to write about him for ages.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

    • Tyknos93 December 29th, 2012 6:09 PM

      Francesca Woodman is another amazing posthumously famous artist.

    • Tyknos93 December 29th, 2012 8:43 PM

      *edit* “In the Realms of the Unreal”

      what am I even doing?

  • spudzine December 29th, 2012 8:30 PM

    I have waited for an artsy article such as this one on Rookie. Thank you, Rookie.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/

  • saramarit December 30th, 2012 5:21 AM

    Vivian Maier is my hero.

  • cloudinthesky December 30th, 2012 10:14 AM

    This is soooo cool! There are so much unknown artists in this world… <3

  • Mikazuki42 December 30th, 2012 12:50 PM

    God that music is beautiful…

  • a-anti-anticapitalista December 31st, 2012 9:05 AM

    This is awesome :3 thanks! And the last note about Sibylle (awesome name btw) is adorable

  • GabbyCat December 31st, 2012 8:21 PM

    I actually saw Maud Lewis’s house in the art museum. It was painted beautifully, but sadly you couldn’t see on the inside. But to make up for it I got a t-shirt, so yay!

  • Pia January 2nd, 2013 1:33 PM

    you forgot Karen Dalton

  • Acid-moon January 3rd, 2013 6:40 PM

    that bit about Maud lewis mad me cry…

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 26th, 2013 1:18 PM

    Wow! I want to know more about all of these.