Jean-Michel Basquiat

A New Book Looks at the History and Work of Artists Who Died Young. Here Are 8 of Their Stories

In examining the many artists who died before the age of 30, authors Angela Swanson Jones and Vern G. Swanson examine 109 stories in their book Desperately Young: Artists Who Died in Their Twenties (ACC Art Books, 2020). Each is unique, though they do find obvious trends and patterns.

A surprising number (in earlier times of course) fell victim to tuberculosis or other now-curable or preventable diseases. Others (roughly 20) were victims of hazardous travel and unsanitary conditions in Rome during sojourns there (in fact, seven were Prix de Rome winners).

Of course, there is no shortage of cases where drugs and alcohol were a main cause of early death, playing into the trope of the “tortured artist.” One thing that immediately leaps out at the reader is there are far more male artists profiled here than female.

The authors insist that their work is not born out of some sort of “morbid fascination” but instead out of the impulse to imbue their subjects and the art they created with “abiding honour, recognition, and consolation.”


Jeanne Hébuterne, age 21

Jeanne Hebuterne, <i>Autoportrait (Self Portrait)</i>, (circa 1917). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Jeanne Hebuterne, Autoportrait (Self Portrait), (circa 1917). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

You may not be familiar with her name, but Jeanne Hebuterne’s face has graced more than 20 canvases in portraits painted by her lover, Amedeo Modigliani. The young artist met Modigliani—a hedonistic enfant terrible of the art world who was 14 years her senior—while she was studying at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, and was immediately swept into his orbit.

Though her later paintings showed some influence of Modigliani, Jeanne had her own distinct style that was more indebted to Matisse and the Fauves. In a self-portrait that was sold at Christie’s Paris in 2018, Jeanne stares frankly from the canvas at the viewer with a challenging gaze, wearing what appears to be a kimono, lending it the feeling of a boudoir portrait. 

With only about 25 paintings to her name, Hebuterne’s story was eclipsed by that of her prolific lover and her life as a mother to his child. In January 1920, Modigliani died of meningitis brought on by his tuberculosis. Less than 48 hours later, Hebuterne, overwhelmed with grief, threw herself from the window of her parents apartment, killing herself and her unborn child. 

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, age 25

Aubrey Beardsley, Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome; The Climax, (1893), Stephen Calloway. Photo: © Tate.

The British artist Aubrey Beardsley came down with a case of tuberculosis at age seven that would haunt him and prove ultimately fatal, taking his life as it had his father and grandfather before. Beardsley showed immense promise at a young age, inspiring the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones to write, “I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.”  

Beardsley’s illustrations bore the influence of Japanese woodcuts and earlier illustrators like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, though his work was fully unique and ushered in the period known as the Modern Style, which was the Brit’s answer to Art Nouveau. His work edged toward the erotic as he matured, with a markedly bohemian sensibility that was deemed prurient when viewed in tandem with Oscar Wilde’s work. Beardsley was considered a controversial figure in his generation. 

Toward the end of his short life, the artist embraced religion, converting to Roman Catholicism and renouncing his self-proclaimed “obscene” works. Despite his pleas that publishers Herbert C. Pollitt and Leonard Smithers destroy those images, the works continued to be released into the public sphere, cementing his place in art history. Of Beardsley, the authors of Desperately Young ask, “Had he lived, would he have been as great a Christian artist as he had been a profane one?”


Richard Gerstl, age 25

Richard Gerstl, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04). Courtesy of the Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Richard Gerstl, Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04). Courtesy of the Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Austrian-born painter Richard Gerstl has one of this time’s more tragic biographies, hitting all of the notes of the classic tortured artist. After befriending the composer Arnold Schoenberg and joining his tight-knit group of creative friends, Gerstl began an affair with Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde. After the pair were caught in flagrante, Gerstl was excommunicated from the inner circle. 

Suffering from depression and becoming increasingly agitated, Gerstl’s paintings are marked by self-loathing and unhappiness, isolated and spiraling into ever-further depths of despair. On the evening of November 4, as Schoenberg was giving a concert that Gerstl had been excluded from, the disconsolate artist burned his archive of letters and drawings, stripped naked, and hanged himself in front of a mirror, also managing to stab himself savagely in a final dramatic flourish of self-annihilation. 


Charlotte Salomon, age 26

Charlotte Salomon's <i>Self Portrait</i> (1940). Courtesy Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam © Charlotte Salomon Foundation.

Charlotte Salomon’s Self Portrait (1940). Courtesy Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam © Charlotte Salomon Foundation.

The German artist was born in Berlin in 1917 during World War I and knew no shortage of suffering during her brief life. Her mother committed suicide when she was nine years old. In 1938, following Kristallnacht, her father was sent to a concentration camp for a time. Salomon went to live with her grandparents in Villefranche on the French Riviera.

“Far from being a haven, during her time there she personally witnessed her grandmother committing suicide by jumping from a window, as her mother had done,” according to the book.

Evidence suggests the artist may have been sexually abused by her grandfather. In 1943, she and her husband, whom she had married just a few months earlier, were sent to Auschwitz. Salomon, who was five months pregnant when she arrived at the camp, was murdered in the gas chambers.

Her tragic life has served as inspiration for plays, a novel, a documentary, a film, and even a ballet-opera. She is famous for an autobiographical gouache series of nearly 800 works that mixes fact and fantasy in recounting her family’s story from World War I through the rise of Nazism.


Auguste Macke, age 27

August Macke, Four Girls (1913). Photo courtesy of Museum Kunstpalast – Horst Kolberg.

August Macke, Four Girls (1913). Photo courtesy of Museum Kunstpalast – Horst Kolberg.

Though Macke was an important German Expressionist painter, his personality and artwork were notable for his joie de vivre in contrast to the darker tones, style, and subject matter often associated with this movement. In Paris, he immersed himself in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and the influence of Matisse resulted in a notably brighter palette for Macke.

He was conscripted into the German army in 1914 and was killed in combat in the second month of World War I. Macke’s influence on later avant-garde German painting is, as the book says, “incalculable.”


Jean Michel Basquiat, age 27

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

He is arguably the most famous artist profiled in the book and his meteoric rise to fame in the New York art world during the 1980s has been well-documented. Born in Brooklyn, Basquiat was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent and his rebellious streak saw him take to the streets where he splashed his “SAMO” graffiti tag around prominently before getting noticed by the cognoscenti and given gratis studio space in the gallery of iconic dealer Anina Nosei.

Basquiat was famous in his own short lifetime and even collaborated with fellow art star Andy Warhol. Since his death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, in April 1988, his work has become ever more popular and sought after. According to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database, the ten highest works sold at auction each made over $30 million. The highest price ever paid for a Basquiat painting was $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017. Japanese fashion mogul Yusaka Maezawa was the buyer.


Egon Schiele, age 28

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Bare Shoulder (1912). Courtesy of the Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Bare Shoulder (1912). Courtesy of the Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Schiele played a major role in Austrian Expressionism and began his career as a protege of Gustav Klimt. He was extremely prolific, having created around 3,000 drawings during his lifetime. But the subject matter proved controversial—particularly erotic images of contorted and often sexually explicit nudes. The minors and young prostitutes who frequented his studio didn’t exactly help his reputation either.

In 1912, he was charged with abducting and seducing an underaged girl. The charges were eventually dropped but he was sentenced to 24 days in jail for exhibiting erotic art to children. The judge even burned a drawing in court.

In 1915, he married Edith Harms. She was six months pregnant with their first child, in 1918, when both she and the artist contracted the Spanish flu. They died within days of one another. One of the artist’s last drawings is Edith Schiele on Her Deathbed.


Bob Thompson, age 28

Bob Thompson, The Golden Ass (1963). Courest of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Bob Thompson, The Golden Ass (1963). Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

The African American painter was influenced by a range of historical styles and types of art, from the baroque to Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism to jazz music. The result was a distinctive style marked by flatly painted, primary colored abstracted figures acting out narratives from mythology and the Bible.

Thompson received accolades during his lifetime, including a solo show at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1963. He won several grants and fellowships that allowed him to take extended trips to Europe.

He battled depression from a young age and often turned to drugs and alcohol as a way of dealing. He died in Rome as a result of a heroin overdose. He was prolific and produced nearly 1,000 paintings during his lifetime, many of which now hang in prestigious private and museum collections.

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The Back Room: A Macro View of the Spring Auctions


2. For Blue-Chip Standbys, the Auction (Mostly) Happens Before the Auction

The presale period is when the houses field third-party offers to assume the risk (and upside) of the guarantees they’ve made to consignors. Once those back-room competitions play out, there’s seldom much demand left for the salesroom anymore.

At Christie’s, solid (if not spectacular) works by Gerhard RichterChristopher Wool, and Richard Prince sold to their guarantors with no outside resistance—often well beneath their low estimates. (Katya Kazakina’s latest column dug into these works and others consigned to Christie’s by private equity titan Thompson Dean.) In total, 16 of the 39 works in the sale were guaranteed, and most were backed by third parties.

In Sotheby’s contemporary segment, a classic Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting barely crept within presale estimate range by hammering at $36 million on one bid to its backer. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Versus Medici hammered below its $50 million presale expectation. (Fees pushed it to $50.7 million.) Incidentally, nine of the 32 lots to reach the rostrum in this portion of the evening were guaranteed, with seven of the nine backed by third parties. (Two works were withdrawn presale, further reducing the drama.)

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale, largely defined by uneven bidding and few fireworks, counted 14 guarantees—11 of which had third-party backing.

The point: Many works seen as reliable stores of value (but not much more) are likely to be more in demand behind the scenes than in front of them anymore. This week’s sales did little to dispel that notion.

3 Prolific Artist Friendships That Changed the Course of Art History

In the often-solitary life of an artist, it is rare to find a trustworthy peer to take on the role of confidante. And there’s a good reason why: critique, both internal and from others, is a never-ending obsession for an artist, whose livelihood is dependent on the personal outpouring of their craft. Indeed, it takes a very special sort of friendship between artists to persist through the highs and lows of their unique lifestyles and to overcome professional jealousy, easily bruised feelings, and, at times, differing opinions on what makes good art. 

But the relationships between Yayoi Kusama and Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan succeeded in doing exactly that, crossing divisions of gender, age, background, nationality, and circumstance to cement long-lasting bonds. In the name of lifting one another up as artists and as friends alike, these pairs provided each other with constant support that helped to realize artwork that ultimately shaped the course of art history. Here, we examine these three friendships more closely.


Yayoi Kusama and Donald Judd 

Yayoi Kusama, Flower Obsession (Sunflower), 2000. Courtesy of the artist.

Yayoi Kusama, Flower Obsession (Sunflower), 2000. Courtesy of the artist.

Born on opposite ends of the earth just a year apart, Yayoi Kusama and Donald Judd’s paths would cross as young artists finding their footing in late 1950s New York City. While their initial meeting occurred after Judd wrote a rave review of Kusama’s first New York solo show for ARTnews, their relationship—mostly one of friendship but at times, romantic—would continue to deepen for decades to come. For a young artist coming up in the post-WWII New York art scene, the weight of a critic’s voice could not be understated, and in this arena, Judd provided Kusama with a strong foundation from which to launch her career. The two seemed to connect through their shared self-described label of “outsider” and over time, a through-line emerged in both artists’ practices that involved the outright rejection of any preexisting school of thought. 

The 1960s would see Judd and Kusama enjoying a congruent rise of recognition. The mutual influence between the two was strengthened, too, by physical proximity after they moved into the same studio building in 1961. While there, both artists’ genre-defying work seemed to hit their respective strides, with Judd moving out of representational painting and into minimalism while Kusama continued to refine her practice.

Donald Judd in 1970. Photo Paul Katz, courtesy Judd-Hume Prize.

Donald Judd in 1970. Photo Paul Katz, courtesy Judd-Hume Prize.

As their friendship progressed, mutual admiration for one another became a defining feature of Judd and Kusama’s relationship. Kusama once remarked that Judd was her first boyfriend, while Judd mentioned that Kusama’s work ethic and dedication to her practice was something he tried to model in his own life. Their common investigations of finding spirituality in repetition, concerns with spatiality, and stability from the pressures of the mind would pave the way for a new kind of dialogue in modern art. At times, each would rebuff the commercial art world and make work that many would deem too difficult to sell. And though their lives would geographically diverge when Kusama moved back to her native Japan in 1973, the two remained in close correspondence via letters of encouragement for a long time until Judd’s death in 1994.


Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan

Arnold Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Provincetown (1963).
Photo: The Estate of Arnold Newman, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery.

For a fleeting moment in the late 1950s, female painters working in the United States became a focal point of critical attention, ushered into the mainstream art world through their glamorization in a 1957 LIFE magazine feature. Though this moment would come to pass, and widespread attention once again returned largely to male artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan, two standouts of this period, persisted in carving out space for women in the art world while maintaining a close bond. 

Frankenthaler and Hartigan shocked the scene with painting styles that were considered too masculine for their makers. Monumental in scale and full of energy and action, both artists embraced practices that would knowingly push the canon of painting. They met through their shared social circle of New York’s downtown artistic community, and though the two were in close kinship with many of their male counterparts who were enjoying worldwide recognition—such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—Frankenthaler and Hartigan’s inclusions in the contemporary art conversation of the time were few and far between.

A young Grace Hartigan painting in her studio in the 1940s at the beginning of her artistic career. Image courtesy Syracuse University.

A young Grace Hartigan painting in her studio in the 1940s at the beginning of her artistic career. Image courtesy Syracuse University.

Despite their hardships, both continued to make their mark in a man’s world that tried to claim singular ownership of abstract painting, and their continued support of one another would prove crucial in the ongoing fight for recognition of women artists the world over.

In later years, after enjoying distinct milestones of success, such as Frankenthaler’s representation of the United States in the 1966 Venice Biennale, and Hartigan’s inclusion as the only woman in MoMA’s 1956 show “Twelve Americans,” both artists sought to defy the conventions of abstraction by painting scenes from life with recognizable imagery. Moving beyond the genre of abstract expressionism, they incorporated written source material such as poetry, fiction, and memoir into their paintings. Together, they would reject stylistic decisions they knew had become widely popular, opting instead to push their work into new territory. 


Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1982). The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To try and fit Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s dynamic relationship into any one category is an impossible feat. When the two formally connected over lunch at the suggestion of a mutual friend, they began an association that would blur the distinctions between mentor/mentee, father/son, and artist/muse, forming a bond that today receives household recognition even beyond the art world.

By the time their two worlds convened in 1982, Warhol was an established global figure whose career had seen overwhelming success. Basquiat, at 32 years Warhol’s junior, had just begun to make a name for himself in New York as a graffiti artist. In this kismet moment, the two recognized the potential that a partnership would award their vastly different practices and lives. Whereas Basquiat had long looked up to Warhol, seeking similar fame and recognition, Warhol was inspired by Basquiat to seek out new ways to innovate in the later stage of his career. A mutually beneficial collaboration began between the two, who would remain virtually inseparable until Warhol’s death just six years later. 

Andy Warhol in front of several paintings in his "Endangered Species" series at his studio, the Factory, in Union Square, New York, New York, April 12, 1983. (Photo by Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Andy Warhol in front of several paintings in his “Endangered Species” series at his studio, the Factory, in Union Square, New York, New York, April 12, 1983. (Photo by Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Each seemed to bask in an aura of intrigue while in the presence of one another, as if attracted to the polarity of the other’s persona. Their relationship ignored convention, painting them as an odd couple in what was at times incredibly personal and intimate, though not outright romantic. Artistically, Warhol’s refined, machine-like style was challenged by the stark rawness which imbued all of Basquiat’s work. Their opposing philosophies seeped into each other’s output throughout the course of their friendship, resulting in a period of revitalized work for both that would come to define their careers.

At times turbulent, the bond between Warhol and Basquiat endured until Warhol’s unexpected death in 1987. The loss of Warhol left a massive void in Basquiat’s life, spurring the start of especially destructive behavior that would ultimately claim his life just one year later. And though both artists’ lives were tragically cut short, their influences on the art world today continue to be as prevalent as ever before. 


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