10 Famously Eccentric Artists in History

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Whether you embrace their art or run from it, chances are you’ve heard of or at least glimpsed something influenced by the 10 eccentric artists on this list. Despite their notable and even noble status today, not all of these quirky creative geniuses had the same level of respect during their lives. And some really did have folks fleeing from them. Rather than trying to order these artists by their level of eccentricity, we’ve listed them in chronological order by birth date … which further proves some were born way before their time.

 

10. Caravaggio

Caravaggio was known to spend weeks in a drunken stupor celebrating the completion of a painting.

Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, 1606-07.

If anyone can do justice to Goliath’s severed head dangling from a lock of hair in David’s grasp, that someone is Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Born in 1571, Caravaggio rocked the Baroque world with paintings seeped in “radical naturalism” with a dramatic and often very dark twist. The dark and dramatic tone matched his own nature, as he was known to celebrate completion of a work by spending the next month or more getting drunk and stumbling around town with a sword to pick fights. He fled Rome in 1606 after killing a guy during one of those fights. He was no stranger to jail and even had the Pope issue a death warrant on him. Caravaggio died at age 38 in 1610 under very mysterious circumstances. Some reported he died of a fever, while others speculated he had been murdered. The mystery remains intriguing to this day; in 2010, researchers announced that human remains discovered in an Italian church crypt likely belonged to Caravaggio. Even more revealing, the analysis found the remains had a high lead content — lead poisoning, resulting from the lead in his paints, which might have made him deranged.

 

9. William Blake

William Blake has earned new appreciation from modern art scholars.

The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, 1795.

Heaven and hell, innocence and experience, and mounds of twisted yet compelling imagery pepper the works of William Blake. Perhaps best known for his role as a leading Romantic-era poet, Blake was also a printmaker and painter who often combined his poetry with his illustrations. Born in 1757, Blake was not well accepted, recognized or even liked during his lifetime, save for being recognized as strange. Later generations, however, have placed him on a pedestal of sorts for his mystical and enlightened views and his astounding works of art. Blake died in poverty and relative obscurity at age 69 in 1827.

 

8. Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd spent the final 42 years of his life in asylums.

Cropped version of Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, 1855-64.

Fairies, troll, goblins and other magical beings dance, prance and crouch around mushrooms in the works of Richard Dadd. Born in 1817, Dadd eventually had plenty of time to concentrate on the obsessive miniscule detail for which his works are known, being that he was locked up in asylums by 1843. The lockup came after Dadd attacked and killed his father with a razor and knife because he believed his father was the devil. At the time, Dadd believed he was under the control of the Egyptian god Osiris; modern researchers believe he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Confined to a psychiatric hospital after his father’s death, he created his greatest works there, including his noted The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. He spent the final 42 years of his life incarcerated in asylums, dying in 1886.

 

7. Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh earned notoriety for allegedly cutting off his own ear.

Vincent van Gogh’s Skull with a Burning Cigarette, 1885-86.

Despite the bold textures, rich colors and eye-popping vivacity of this post-Impressionist artist’s work, the van Gogh image that most often comes to mind is his severed ear. Drunk, frustrated and wracked by mental illness, van Gogh allegedly cut off his ear, wrapped it in newspaper and gave it to a prostitute (or did he? One research team contends he lost it in a drunken sword fight with a friend). Born in 1853, this Dutch artist’s life and work was both defined and hampered by mental illness that some modern scholars believe resulted from lead poisoning from his paints. Others believe van Gogh suffered from either schizophrenia, epilepsy, bipolar disorder or even syphilis. Despite his mental turmoil, van Gogh churned out an impressive array of 2,100 pieces of art in a mere 10 years, producing some of his best work in his final two years of life. He died in 1890 at the age of 37 from what is believed to have been a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

 

6. Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is one of the most colorful artists in modern art history.

Nude Woman with Necklace; © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002, fair use

Never mind “mama” or “dada,” Pablo Ruiz y Picasso’s first words were reportedly “piz, piz,” or the Spanish word for pencil (la piz). Born in 1881, Picasso obviously showed a passion for art at an early age, and that passion joined fame and fortune throughout his life. This quirky Spanish painter is best known for his part in establishing the Cubist movement and painting women with lopsided breasts and re-arranged faces. Although his very early works started out on a realistic note, that changed drastically when he began to experiment with different techniques and media, altering the art world forever. Picasso died at the age of 91 in 1973.

 

5. Salvador Dali

Salvadore Dali's life featured many strange and defining moments.

Salvadore Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936; copyrighted image, fair use.

You may know Dali for his whimsical moustache or his melting clocks, but such quirky traits and works shadowed this Spanish surrealist’s entire life. Born in 1904, Dali’s colorful life included many strange and defining moments: open quarrels with his father, being harangued by bullies for his childhood tantrums and eccentricities and fleeing to the U.S. during WWII. He also allegedly submitted himself to an exorcism in 1947, and in his later years suffered after being inadvertently poisoned by his wife and muse, Gala. The latter didn’t kill him but damaged his nervous system enough to put a premature end to his artistic endeavors. Dali’s paintings are the defining element of his work, although he also dabbled in sculpture, writing, photography and even filmmaking. He appears in a film he co-wrote, Un Chien Andalou, being dragged next to a piano. Dali died in 1989.

 

4. Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo suffered a serious traffic accident as a teen that left her in pain for the rest of her life.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird; Copyrighted material, fair use.

A heavy dose of color, folk art influences and pain mark the work of Frida Kahlo. Born in 1907, Kahlo survived a tragic bus accident as a teen. The crash literally left her shattered, jamming an iron bus rail through her uterus and abdomen and breaking her spinal column, pelvis, collarbone, ribs and leg and dislocating her foot and shoulder. The tragedy left her with a seemingly warped view on things, which was only exacerbated by her volatile and intense marriage to fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The pair had many famous acquaintances; noted Marxist Leon Trotsky lived with the pair for a time. Many of Kahlo’s works are self-portraits, which depict her with flowers, monkeys, veils and a pole jammed through her spine. Kahlo died at age 47 in 1954.

 

3. Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp found art in everyday life, including urinals.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917.

If you know of Marcel Duchamp, then you surely know of his urinal. The Frenchman submitted an ordinary urinal to a gallery in 1917, horrifying the board of directors and resulting in his own resignation from the committee when the board refused to display it. Born in 1887, Duchamp became a fixture in the Surrealist and Dada movements who shaped art not only with his contributions but also by his role as an art advisor for folks like Peggy Guggenheim. Although Duchamp stirred controversy with his paintings early in his career, he later moved on to “readymades,” or objects like a urinal or bicycle wheel that double as instant art. By the 1920s he gave up on art altogether for the game of chess, and became a top player and well-known theorist on chess strategies. Two years before his death in 1968, he stunned the art world by unveiling one final piece of art, which he’d spent two decades working on.

 

2. Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock battled an alcohol problem most of his life.

Photo of Jackson Pollock at work; © Hans Namuth Estate, fair use

Drips, drabs, spills and splatters are the mainstays of Paul Jackson Pollock’s work. Once you learn he endured a lifelong struggle with alcoholism, it may be easy to see why. His paintings, however, were not necessarily considered the mad creations of an alcoholic, but rather a must-have commodity that helped define the abstract expressionist movement. Rich, famous, volatile and reclusive, Pollock was said to have worked best when he could be “in” the painting by stretching the canvas on a flat surface and interacting with it from all angles. Born in 1912, Pollock met an untimely death in 1956 at age 44 as the result of an alcohol-related car crash.

 

1. Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol drew the ire of many critics for his commercial art, but he changed the art world.

Andy Warhol, undated photo; Jack Mitchell

Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe may be the first things that come to mind when folks think of Andy Warhol, as this papa of pop art perfected Marcel Duchamp’s trend of turning ordinary things into art. Born in 1927 to working-class parents in Pittsburgh, Warhol was attacked by some art critics for seemingly embracing commercialism, although his approach led to a major change in the art world as well as major philanthropic support for this entrepreneurial artist and author. Whereas many of the other artists on this list were shunned during their lifetime, Warhol enjoyed the respect and even adulation of many in Hollywood and the business world. And he was far more than an artist, working as a filmmaker, music producer and photographer among his other interests. He’s also well-remembered for his pithy 1968 quote on fame and modern culture, observing that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol, who survived a 1968 murder attempt, eventually succumbed to a complication following gallbladder surgery in 1987.

Written by

Ryn Gargulinski is a writer, artist and performer whose journalism career began in 1991. Credits include two illustrated humor books, hundreds of published articles, poems, illustrations, a weekly radio show and column, a full line of wacky artwork and numerous awards.