5 Artists Who Overcame Dire Circumstances to Become Household Names

artist triumph stories

A single tumbleweed blows across a deserted Western town. A bucket creaks above an empty well. If any of these metaphors sound like your creative life, you’re not alone. In fact, creative blocks aren’t just for schlubs like us—some of art’s greatest minds struggled to produce meaningful work. Take comfort in the epic lows (and triumphant comebacks) of these five legends:

The Hypnotized Composer

It should have been a moment of triumph for a promising 23-year-old, but in fact the debut of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897 was more like a nightmare. Cursed by a drunken conductor, an underrehearsed orchestra, and an unsympathetic audience, the symphony bombed so hard that its score was put away for the remainder of its composer’s lifetime and eventually lost entirely. Faced with shame and failure, Rachmaninoff fell into a three-year depression marked by by fear and doubts about his own musical judgment. He finally broke through the block with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist. Every day Dahl repeated this mantra to his patient: “You will begin to write your concerto…You will work with the greatest of ease…The concerto will be of excellent quality.” Dahl’s treatment allowed Rachmaninoff to regain his confidence and complete his famous Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to his hypnotherapist.

The Reluctant Memoirist

After being brutally raped as a small child, Maya Angelou famously refused to speak for five years. And the author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings almost decided not to speak through literature, too. In 1991, she told The Paris Review that when an editor asked her to write an autobiography, she refused categorically. She refused to write until the editor, clued in by writer James Baldwin, told her that it was impossible to write autobiography as literature. Angelou retorted that she could, then began to write her series of acclaimed autobiographies. In her later years, Angelou dealt with dry spells by playing solitaire in the hotel room where she wrote some of her greatest poems and books. But she was careful not to call her challenges blocks: “I’m careful about the words I use, because I know that my brain will remember and tell them back to me.”

The Grieving Novelist

After the success of  Jane Eyre and its follow-up, Shirley , Charlotte Brontë was arguably the most famous author in England. But when all three of her surviving siblings died over the course of just seven months, she was left  without her best friends and literary collaborators. Brontë felt rudderless without her sisters Anne and Emily, with whom she used to exchange manuscripts and brainstorm during late-night writing sessions, and her grief took a physical and intellectual toll. “Some long, stormy days and nights there were when I felt such a craving for support and companionship as I cannot express,” she wrote later. Though she tried distracting herself by visiting friends, attending art exhibitions and exploring London, her pen remained still. Finally, frustrated by her guilt and driven by the demands of her publishers, she refused all invitations and forbade herself any further relaxation. The first draft of her final novel,  Villette, was written during six agonizing weeks.

The Lovelorn Painter

Pablo Picasso is known for his unstoppable creativity (his prolific career even landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records). But when a love triangle went awry in the 1930s, Picasso stopped painting altogether. Torn between his first wife and his underage, now-pregnant lover, he turned from the brush to poetry and printmaking. The change in medium must have helped: after a fallow period, Picasso channeled his romantic agony into his print Minotauromachy, which is laden with repetition of his mistress’s face. The print went on to lay the foundation for one of Picasso’s most celebrated pieces of art: his anti-war mural Guernica.

The Addicted Poet

Hyperbolic, grandiose, and immoderate in every way, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was not exactly known for having nothing to say. This changed around 1800, when his best friend, William Wordsworth, left his poem Christabel out of a book they co-authored. Stunned by his exclusion and crippled by his increasing opium addiction, Coleridge stopped writing. “As to Poetry, I have altogether abandoned it,” he wrote, “being convinced that I never had the essentials for poetic Genius, & that I mistook a strong desire for original power.” Coleridge eventually redirected his creative energy towards prose and publishing, though he did produce later poems such as writer’s-block-inspired “Work Without Hope.”


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Erin Blakemore is a library school drop-out, historian, freelance writer, and author of the award-winning The Heroine’s Bookshelf (Harper). She dishes about books, history, and channeling your inner heroine at www.erinblakemore.com