Artists are a special, eccentric breed. Some are hermits, while others hide dark pasts. Other times, well, artists are just plain weird. Let’s just say that after reading this list, you may never look at Victor Hugo the same way again.
Eccentric Artists Facts
25. Leonardo da Hippy
Famed Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his gifted mind and brilliant artwork. What’s slightly less known about him is the fact that da Vinci was not only a strict vegetarian, but he was also passionate about animal rights. He would buy caged birds from the Renaissance equivalent of pet stores just so he could set them free.
24. At Least It Wasn’t a Moose
Lord Byron, famed English poet, was a student at Cambridge when he took umbrage at the university’s ban on keeping dogs as pets. So Byron decided to get technical with them: Nowhere in the fine print did Byron find a clause that forbade bears from the campus, presumably because they’d never had to deal with a lunatic before. Byron not only found a bear to keep as a pet, he also took it on a leash around the grounds.
23. He Must Have Really Missed Pre-School
Alexandre Dumas, known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, felt very strongly that all his works must be presented on colored paper. He wanted all his fiction presented on blue paper, his articles on pink paper, and his poetry on yellow paper.
22. Well, That Works
We’ve all dealt with procrastination in various ways, but Ancient Greek orator Demosthenes had a brilliant solution for himself. He would shave half his head, which was such a ridiculous look that he was forced to stay inside and complete his writing until the hair grew back.
21. So Anonymous That Waldo’s Looking For Him!
The legendary street artist known as Banksy has become a highly prized artist. However, virtually nothing is known about him to this day. Throughout his career, he has favored anonymity over any recognition of his work.
20. Crazy for Caffeine
Honoré de Balzac had a special schedule that he swore by: He would wake up at 1 in the morning and spend seven hours writing. After napping for an hour and a half, he would get up at 9:30 and resume writing until 4 in the afternoon. He then spent two hours for himself before going to bed at 6 pm. Allegedly he drank 50 cups of coffee a day to sustain this schedule.
19. No Country for Cormac McCarthy
Despite being the author of several successful books, Cormac McCarthy remained an enigma to the American literary world. He stayed out of the limelight to the point that he even avoided a literary banquet held in his honor. Much to everyone’s surprise, McCarthy broke his vow of reclusiveness by appearing at the Academy Awards when No Country For Old Men, based on his book of the same name, won Best Picture.
18. Diverse Art
Damien Hirst has had one of the more remarkable careers in the British art world. Hirst is known for his art that focuses on the theme of death. Amongst his works of art include putting an entire tiger shark in a glass case and taking a cow sliced in two and pickling it in formaldehyde. One of his artworks, a rotting cow’s head covered in flies, was banned for inciting nausea (because of course it did). On top of all that, Hirst directed a music video for Blur during the 1990s and also formed a band called Fat Les, which Brits will know as the makers of the hit song Vindaloo.
17. Burning for Love
As great a painter as he was, Vincent Van Gogh was not the easiest man to get along with, and he alienated his own family against him. The worst case of this was when he fell in love with his cousin, Kee Vos Stricker. On one occasion, he walked into her house demanding to marry Kee (who was too busy hiding from him), and to show his dedication, he put his hand over a candle and said he would leave it there until they could marry. In a case of anti-climactic comedy, Kee’s father simply blew the candle out and banished Van Gogh from the house.
16. Caught Him on a Bad Day
It’s tempting to argue that the label of “eccentric artist” was invented purely to disguise the sheer insanity that was Hunter S. Thompson. The writer of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and creator of Gonzo Journalism was also known for not suffering fools gladly. When a potential thinkpiece for Rolling Stone written by Mike Peterson was sent to him for an opinion, he proceeded to write a rejection letter that can’t be repeated in polite company, but it involved Thompson lamenting that he didn’t have the time to personally murder Peterson for the insult of showing Thompson his writing.
15. Ladies’ Man
Pablo Picasso’s artistic spirit was fueled by the various muses he had throughout his artistic career. This naturally bled into his personal life, and he proceeded to keep several mistresses, often alongside his wife or main partner. This lasted well into his dotage; Francoise Gilot was 23 when she began an artistic (and personal) relationship with Picasso (he was 63 at the time). She bore him two children, and endured not only physical abuse at his hands, but was also harassed by his legal wife, Olga Khokhlova. When Gilot wrote a book about her life with him, Picasso responded by disowning their children.
14. O Brother, Who Art Thou?
Salvador Dali stands as the classic eccentric artist. One of Dali’s firm beliefs was that he was the reincarnation of his deceased brother. His parents had given birth to a boy whom they named Salvador Dali, but the boy tragically passed away. Their second son apparently resembled his deceased brother so much that Dali’s parents were also convinced that it was their eldest, reborn.
13. Unproductive Unless Undressed
A surprising number of writers preferred to write when they were naked. Agatha Christie liked to write in the bathtub, Victor Hugo wrote naked because he felt less distracted, Benjamin Franklin would write his essays naked in cold rooms while claiming they were “air baths”, and Franz Kafka would exercise naked in front of the open window to clear his mind.
12. No Labels, Please
Leonard Cohen is known as one of the greatest Canadian poets of his time. However, while some spiritually-minded poets might lightly dabble in different themes, Cohen was committed to his causes. Despite being raised Jewish and identifying as Jewish, Cohen also spent five years in seclusion at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California. He was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996.
11. Open Marriage
Renowned artist Frida Kahlo had a very tumultuous personal life. She and her husband, Diego Rivera, both had extramarital affairs during their marriage. Kahlo was bisexual and had a relationship with artist Josephine Baker. As for Rivera, he actually had an affair with Kahlo’s own sister, Cristina.
10. Crazy Diamond
When Pink Floyd started out, Syd Barrett was its main singer, guitarist, and songwriter. After the success of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, however, Barrett’s drug use had affected his reliability, and he left the group. After a couple of solo albums, Barrett decided he was done with the music industry and took up painting and gardening in Cambridge. He never gave interviews, and tried to live as reclusively as possible, living on the royalties he earned as a former Pink Floyd member. On one occasion did Barrett go and reunite with his former bandmates, and it reportedly happened to be while they were recording the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (which fans will know is a tribute to Barrett). By this point, he was overweight and had shaved his head completely, so the band initially didn’t recognize him. When Roger Waters realized who it was, he was so distressed he allegedly began to cry. For his part, Barrett was happy living a lowkey life, which he did until his death in 2006.
9. Shy Guy
In the 1970s, Terrence Malick directed the films Badlands and Days of Heaven, two acclaimed and influential films. After this successful start to a film career, however, Malick vanished from the public eye. He didn’t make a single film for 20 years. In 1998, Malick finally returned to film with The Thin Red Line, and has since made other films, but his reclusiveness has not changed. Malick continues to put it into his contract that no current pictures of him may be released to the public.
8. We’re Just Going to Dinner
Oscar Wilde built his eccentric celebrity meticulously, and he would walk the streets with a lobster on a leash.
7. American Hermit
Emily Dickinson ranks high amongst American poets, but if she’d had her way, very few people would have known about her writing. Dickinson moved back into her parents’ house after her studies and spent the overwhelming majority of her life inside the home. She would even refuse to speak to visitors unless it was through the locked door. Until her death in 1886, only a few of her poems had ever been published, but then her sister found over 1,800 poems Dickinson had written, and the rest is history.
6. Tragic Muse
William S. Burroughs was a member of the infamous Beat Generation, but Burroughs was a notorious abuser of substances. In one tragic incident, he and his wife, Joan Vollmer, were spending time with friends, and at one point, a drunken Burroughs took out a handgun and declared it was time for their “William Tell act.” Despite this having no pretext, Vollmer was equally intoxicated and agreed to put a glass on her head for Burroughs to shoot. Whether Burroughs accidentally fired too low, or whether the gun went off while he was inspecting the it (the reports are fuzzy), Vollmer was killed almost instantly. Needless to say, Burroughs regretted this action for the rest of his life, and was convicted of manslaughter.
5. Sorry, He’s Too Busy Being Awesome
Stanley Kubrick is notorious for his perfectionism, for his slow, meticulous process of filmmaking, and his need for absolute control over his film productions. But this kind of eccentricity bled into his personal life as well. Kubrick rarely gave interviews to the public and lived reclusively in England. According to the famous legend, fans would occasionally knock on his door to see if the director was home. Because so few people actually knew what he looked like, Kubrick would sometimes answer the door himself and tell the visitors that Mr. Kubrick wasn’t at home.
4. Misunderstood? Maybe Not…
Most people are aware of Edgar Allan Poe’s many eccentricities, and he gained a reputation as a drug addict and a depraved lunatic. However, most of these claims came from a biography written after Poe’s death by his enemy, Rufus Griswold, who was revealed to have lied about nearly everything in order to discredit his enemy. What is true about Poe is that in 1835, he obtained a marriage license to wed his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia, when he was 26. They held a marriage ceremony the next year, with a witness claiming that Virginia was 21.
3. Dirty in All the Worst Ways
Michelangelo, renowned painter of the Sistine Chapel and brilliant sculptor to boot, was surprisingly averse to cleaning himself in any way whatsoever. He would also rarely change his clothes. One of his servants remarked that he would spend so much time in his shoes that when he finally did take them off, “the skin came away, like a snake’s, with the boots.”
2. Call the Police?
Some people might still be tempted to laugh off some of Hunter S. Thompson’s wild antics, but for a man with no filter, things did go too far on several occasions. Thompson was friends with Jack Nicholson, and for Christmas, Thompson sent Nicholson’s young daughter a demented present. His choice of gift? A gruesomely detailed sculpture of a rat caught in a trap. To explain, he provided a note on which he’d written: “Dear Lorraine. This will teach you a lesson about trusting men which will be valuable later in life. You’re welcome, Uncle Hunter.”
1. Ooh Ooh Amadeus
“Mozart” is the name that people think of first when asked to identify a classical composer. He will go down in history as one of the greatest child prodigies and creators of music. What people will likely not remember about him is the fact that in his spare time, he wrote letters to his cousin that were full of incredibly graphic, nearly unprintable material. He would write similarly themed letters to his mother as well, who to be fair was in on the joke and would respond in kind. One example? This was to dear old mom: “I now wish you goodnight, shit in your bed with all your might, sleep with peace on your mind and try to kiss your own behind. […] Oh my ass burns like fire! What on earth is the meaning of this! —- maybe muck wants to come out? yes, yes, muck…” Wow, Mozart, wow.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18