This is a cross-post from The Public Domain Review, a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation.
Top Row (left to right): George Washington Carver; Sergei Rachmaninoff; Shaul Tchernichovsky
Middle Row (left to right): Sophie Taeuber-Arp; Nikola Tesla; Kostis Palamas; Max Wertheimer
Bottom Row (left to right): Simone Weil; Chaim Soutine; Fats Waller; Beatrix Potter
Below is a little bit more about each of their lives (with each name linking through to their respective Wikipedia pages, from which each text has been based).
Beatrix Potter (28th July 1866 – 22nd December 1943) was an English author, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. As a young woman Potter developed a keen interest in drawing, in particular animals, real and imagined, and also insects, fossils, archaeological artefacts, and fungi – and would often fill letters to friends with illustrations. In September 1893, at the age of 27, Potter was on holiday in Perthshire and, running out of things to say in a letter to the ill son of her former governess, she told him a story about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” It became one of the most famous children’s letters ever written and the basis of Potter’s future career as a writer-artist-storyteller. Eight years later Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first privately in 1901, and a year later as a small, three-colour illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. It would be the first of a series of twenty three extremely popular “tales” involving the exploits of various anthropomorphised animals who lived in the English countryside. Potter was also a great conservationist and with the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, she purchased a whole series of farms in the lake District in order to preserve the unique hill country landscape. When she died on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, she left almost all her property to the National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1st April 1873 – 28th March 1943) was a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music. Early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russian composers gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness and his use of rich orchestral colors. The piano is featured prominently in Rachmaninoff’s compositional output, and through his own skills as a performer, helped by his enormous hands, he made huge steps in exploring the expressive possibilities of the instrument.
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (21st May 1904 – 15th December 1943) was an influential jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer, whose innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano, and whose best-known compositions, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1984 and 1999. Waller was one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Squeeze Me”. Fellow pianist and composer Oscar Levant dubbed Waller “the black Horowitz”. Waller composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums. When the compositions became hits, other songwriters claimed them as their own. Many standards are alternatively and sometimes controversially attributed to Waller. In one now legendary story, Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by the mobster Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building, and found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realised he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s birthday party. According to rumour, Waller played for three days. When he left the Hawthorne Inn, he was very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.
Nikola Tesla (10th July 1856 – 7th January 1943) was a Serbian American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Tesla gained experience in telephony and electrical engineering before emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison. He soon struck out on his own with financial backers, setting up laboratories and companies to develop a range of electrical devices. His patented AC induction motor and transformer were licensed by George Westinghouse, who also hired Tesla as a consultant to help develop a power system using alternating current. Tesla is also known for his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs which included patented devices and theoretical work used in the invention of radio communication, for his X-ray experiments, and for his ill-fated attempt at intercontinental wireless transmission in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project. Tesla’s achievements and his abilities as a showman demonstrating his seemingly miraculous inventions made him world-famous and gained him a reputation as an archetypical “mad scientist”.
Chaïm Soutine (13th January 1893 – 9th August 1943) was a French painter of Belarusian Jewish origin who made a major contribution to the expressionist movement while living in Paris. Inspired by classic painting in the European tradition, exemplified by the works of Rembrandt, Chardin and Courbet, Soutine developed an individual style more concerned with shape, color, and texture over representation, which served as a bridge between more traditional approaches and the developing form of Abstract Expressionism. He once horrified his neighbours by keeping an animal carcass in his studio so that he could paint it (Carcass of Beef). The stench drove them to send for the police, whom Soutine promptly lectured on the relative importance of art over hygiene. There’s a story that Marc Chagall saw the blood from the carcass leak out onto the corridor outside Soutine’s room, and rushed out screaming, ‘Someone has killed Soutine.’ Soutine painted 10 works in this series, which have since become his most well-known. His carcass paintings were inspired by Rembrandt’s still life of the same subject, which he discovered while studying the Old Masters in the Louvre. In February 2006, the oil painting from this series called ‘Le Boeuf Écorché’ (1924) sold for a record £7.8 million ($13.8 million) to an anonymous buyer at a Christie’s auction held in London – after it was estimated to fetch £4.8 million.
Simone Weil (3rd February 1909 – 24th August 1943) was a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist. Weil’s life was marked by an exceptional compassion for the suffering of others; at the age of six, for instance, she refused to eat sugar after she heard that soldiers fighting in World War I had to go without. After her graduation from formal education, Weil became a teacher. She taught intermittently throughout the 1930s, taking several breaks due to poor health and to devote herself to political activism, work that would see her assisting in the trade union movement, taking the side of the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, and spending more than a year working as a labourer, mostly in auto factories, so she could better understand the working class. Taking a path that was unusual among twentieth-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became more religious and inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, though most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. Although sometimes described as odd, humourless, and irritating, she inspired great affection in many of those who knew her. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”. She died from tuberculosis during World War II, possibly exacerbated by malnutrition after refusing to eat more than the minimal rations that she believed were available to soldiers at the time.
Max Wertheimer (15th April 1880 – 12th October 1943) was a Prague-born psychologist who was, along with Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler, one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology: a theory of mind and brain which sees the brain as holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts, suggesting the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wertheimer is best known for his work Productive Thinking, as well as his idea of Phi Phenomenon, both important in the founding and development of Gestalt psychology.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp (19th January 1889 – 13th January 1943) was a Swiss artist, painter, sculptor, and dancer. She is considered one of the most important artists of geometric abstraction of the 20th century, her textile and graphic works from around 1916 through the 1920s being among among the earliest examples of Constructivism, along with those of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. During this period, she was involved in the Zürich Dada movement, which centred on the Cabaret Voltaire, and she took part in Dada-inspired performances as a dancer, choreographer, and puppeteer. At the opening of the Galerie Dada in 1917, she danced to poetry by Hugo Ball wearing a shamanic mask by Marcel Janco. A year later, she was a co-signer of the Zurich Dada Manifesto. In the late 20s Taeuber-Arp moved with her husband, the Dada artist Jean Arp, to Paris. In the 30s, she became a member of the group Cercle et Carré, a standard-bearer of nonfigurative art, and its successor, the Abstraction-Création group; and in the late 1930s she founded a Constructivist review, Plastique (Plastic) in Paris. Her circle of friends included the artists Sonia Delaunay, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, and Marcel Duchamp. In 1940, Taeuber-Arp and Arp fled Paris ahead of the Nazi occupation and moved to Grasse in Southern France, where they created an art colony with Sonia Delaunay and other artists. In 1943, during a visit to Switzerland, Taeuber-Arp died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning due to a malfunctioning stove.
George Washington Carver (by January 1864 – 5th January 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor. The exact day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born into slavery in Missouri in January 1864. Carver’s reputation is based on his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, which also aided nutrition for farm families. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts. He also developed and promoted about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin, and hundreds of more uses for soybeans and sweet potatoes. During the Reconstruction-era South, monoculture of cotton depleted the soil in many areas and in the early 20th century the boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crop, and planters and farm workers suffered. Carver’s work on peanuts was intended to provide an alternative crop and was vital for the rejuvenation of the blighted region. He received numerous honours for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a “Black Leonardo”. Two years later he died after taking a fall: on his grave was written, He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.
Shaul Tchernichovsky (20th August 1875 – 14th October 1943) was a Russian-born Hebrew poet, considered one of the great poets of the Hebrew language. Born into a small village in the Crimea (now part of Ukraine), he published his first poems in Odessa where he studied from 1890 to 1892. From 1899 to 1906 he studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg, finishing his medical studies in Lausanne. From then on, he mingled his activities as a doctor with his activities as a poet. After completing his studies he returned to Ukraine to practice in Kharkov and in Kiev and then served in the First World War as an army doctor in Minsk and in Saint Petersburg. From 1925 to 1932 he was one of the editors of the newspaper Hatekufa and in 1931 immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine where he settled permanently. Besides being a poet, Tchernichovsky was known as an excellent translator. His translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey particularly earned recognition. He also translated Sophocles, Horace, Shakespeare, Molière, Pushkin, Goethe, Heine, Byron, Shelley, the Kalevala, the Gilgamesh Cycle, the Icelandic Edda, etc. He was also a friend of the distinguished Klausner family of Jerusalem, including the child who would grow up to become the novelist Amos Oz, to whom he was known as “Uncle Shaul.”
Kostis Palamas (13th January 1859 – 27th February 1943) was a Greek poet who wrote the words to the Olympic Hymn. He was a central figure of the Greek literary generation of the 1880s and one of the cofounders of the so-called New Athenian School (or Palamian School, or Second Athenian School) along with Georgios Drosinis, Nikos Kampas, Ioanis Polemis. He has been informally called the “national” poet of Greece and was closely associated with the struggle to rid Modern Greece of the “purist” language and with political liberalism. He dominated literary life for 30 or more years and greatly influenced the entire political-intellectual climate of his time. Romain Rolland considered him the greatest poet of Europe and he was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but never received it. His most important poem, “The Twelve Lays of the Gypsy” (1907), is a poetical and philosophical journey. His “Gypsy” is a free-thinking, intellectual rebel, a Greek Gypsy in a post-classical, post-Byzantine Greek world, an explorer of work, love, art, country, history, religion and science, keenly aware of his roots and of the contradictions between his classical and Christian heritages.
And a few others that didn’t make it to the class photo….
Frida Uhl, Stephen Haggard, John Harvey Kellog , Pieter Cornelis Boutens, Stephen Vincent Benét, Oskar Schlemmer , Jovan Dučić , Geoffrey Shaw, Franz Oppenheimer, Max Reinhardt, Robert Antoine Pinchon,
Some people you think we’ve missed? Please let us know in the comments!
There is also of course a Class of 2014 for those countries with a ‘life plus 50 years’ copyright term – including Canada, many countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Some might argue that they’ve got an even more impressive line up! Their list of all-star graduates include:
William Carlos Williams
C. S. Lewis
To learn more about Public Domain Day visit publicdomainday.org. For more names whose works will be going into the public domain in 2014 see the Wikipedia page on 1943 deaths , 1963 deaths, and this great page dedicated to the public domain in 2014.
We also came across this great public domain advent calendar project (in French).
Wondering what published works will enter the public domain in the U.S.? …Nothing.
Wondering if “bad things happen to works when they enter the public domain”? Wonder no more.
(Learn more about the situation in the U.S. and why the public domain is important in this article in Huff Post Books and this from the Duke Law School’s Centre for the Study of the Public Domain).