From 'King Lear' to 'Frankenstein': Famous works produced in isolation

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December 11, 2020
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From 'King Lear' to 'Frankenstein': Famous works produced in isolation

Living in isolation became commonplace during the coronavirus pandemic after the first known case was detected on Nov. 17, 2019. Millions of people around the world lived in isolation for months, in efforts to slow the spread of the disease and to protect the most vulnerable among us. Isolation helped to protect individuals and the collective, but that doesn't mean it was easy. 

One outlet for stress that people have employed for centuries is creating something new. Whether it's writing a book, composing poetry, painting a picture, or recording an album, expression through some sort of artistic outlet can help manage the profusion of feelings that come up when life has been flipped upside down. After all, creativity floods the brain with dopamine and can help one enter a meditative-like state, calming the mind and improving mental well-being. Additionally, being creative may even help boost the immune system

In order to provide some inspiration for your own creations, Stacker has compiled a list of 51 famous works that were created in isolation. Using news reports and historical sources, we've rounded up some of the biggest pieces of art that were written, painted, filmed, or produced by a single individual or band.

Explore our list and spend some time engaging with works like "Le Morte d'Arthur" by Sir Thomas Malory, The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.," and Gints Zilbalodis' film "Away." Taylor Swift has dropped not one but two albums created in isolation—"Folklore" and its new "sister album," "Evermore." Whether the works were inspired by isolation due to COVID-19 or an old-fashioned artistic retreat, you're sure to walk away with a deeper understanding of art history and possibly inspiration to create something of your own.

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‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ by Sir Thomas Malory

Completed in 1469, “Le Morte d’Arthur” is often considered the first novel in English and the first novel in Western literature. The tome was written by Sir Thomas Malory, a knight during the War of the Roses, while he spent time in prison on various charges. It tells the story of the legend of King Arthur, for which it has been granted the distinction of the most comprehensive version.

‘Basilica di San Lorenzo Room’ by Michelangelo

It may not technically be a “finished” work, but in 1975 art historians discovered a hidden room in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, whose walls were covered in the chalk and charcoal sketches of Michelangelo. Centuries earlier, in 1527, the Renaissance master had joined a revolt that drove his patrons, the Medici family, out of Florence, and as a result, he went into hiding. In total, there are over 70 sketches in the 23x6.5-foot room.

‘Pietà’ by Titian

Renaissance artist Titian painted his last work “Pietà” during a 1576 outbreak of the plague in Venice. Made during quarantine, the painting is an ex-voto offering to the Virgin Mary for the survival of Titian and his son, Orazio. Unfortunately, the prayer was ignored, and both father and son died before the outbreak was over.

‘History of the World’ by Sir Walter Raleigh

From 1603 to 1616 Sir Walter Raleigh was confined to the Tower of London by King James I on suspicion of treason. During this imprisonment, Raleigh wrote his “History of the World,” which was a thinly veiled criticism of the monarchy and did him no favors. The work was suppressed in Raleigh’s lifetime but has since become an important and oft-cited volume.

'King Lear' by Shakespeare

In 1606 the bubonic plague, or the black death, closed theaters all over London for months on end. During this time away from the stage, Shakespeare, then an actor with The King's Men theater troupe, devoted his time to writing a handful of new dramatic works, including "King Lear." The playwright finished "Macbeth" and at least part of "Antony and Cleopatra" during the pandemic-inflicted quarantine, according to scholar James Shapiro.

‘Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-Stricken of Palermo’ by Anthony van Dyck

A portraitist for the rich and famous, Anthony van Dyck had been invited to Palermo, Italy, in the spring of 1624 to paint one of the city’s famous residents. While he was there, an outbreak of the black death hit the region, and he was forced into quarantine. While in lockdown, he painted this picture of Saint Rosalie, who was believed to have rid Palermo of the plague. “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague Stricken of Palermo” was acquired by the Met in 1871.

‘To Althea, From Prison’ by Richard Lovelace

In 1642 poet Richard Lovelace was thrown in prison for supporting Charles I. During his stint in jail, he wrote this poem, “To Althea, From Prison,” which contains the oft-quoted, and perhaps relevant, lines: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage...if I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free.”

‘Voyage Around My Room’ by Xavier De Maistre

Born in 1763, Xavier De Maistre would become well known in 1790 after the publication of his book “Voyage autour de ma Chambre” or “Voyage Around My Room.” The book was written while Xavier was under house arrest for 42 days following a duel. A parody of the grand travel narratives that were popular at the time, his book takes a reader on a tour of the furniture, art, and items that make up the room.

‘Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue’ by Marquis de Sade

French author Marquis de Sade did a handful of jail stints in his lifetime. It was during one of these, in 1787, while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, that De Sade penned “Justine.” The novel tells the story of a virtuous maiden and the torture and sexual deviances piled upon her by wicked men. Reader be warned, this book contains adult material.

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley

1816 is known as "the year without a summer," thanks to a massive volcano explosion on an Indonesian island the year prior. The explosion caused a long-lasting surface cooling, which made summer in Europe and North America the coldest on record—unusually rainy with freezing temperatures. It was during this temperature-induced isolation that an 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" as part of a competition with her husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron.

‘The Vampyre’ by Dr. John William Polidori

Another truly creepy story that came from the isolation of “the year without a summer” and the Shelley/Byron story contest was Dr. John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” Published in 1819, the story reportedly influenced Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

‘Sanditon’ by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s final novel, “Sanditon,” was never technically finished. However, the author did manage to pen 11.5 chapters while sick in bed before a mysterious illness claimed her life in 1817. Scholars still debate whether Austen died from Hodgkin's lymphoma, Addison’s disease, tuberculosis, or something else entirely, but it’s universally acknowledged that the portion of “Sanditon” she was able to complete while so gravely ill is on par with the rest of her finished works.

‘Hope Is the Thing with Feathers’ by Emily Dickinson

For the last 20 years of her life, poet Emily Dickinson didn’t leave her family’s Amherst, Massachusetts, property. In fact, she was so isolated that even those nearest and dearest to her were unaware of her mastery over the written word. It wasn’t until her death in 1886 that her sister, Vinnie, found nearly 1,800 poems, including “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” that Dickinson had completed.

‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods’ by Henry David Thoreau

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into the woods near Walden Pond as part of a two-year-long “experiment.” He was never fully withdrawn from society—choosing to see friends on occasion and chat with passersby—but he spent much of this time drawing close to nature and in self-examination. His book “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” was written in its entirety during this time of self-isolation, and focuses heavily on the lessons Thoreau was learning and the observations he was making.

'Bouilloire et Fruits' by Paul Cezanne

French artist Paul Cezanne had always been a bit of an eccentric (he once refused to shake hands with Manet citing the fact that he hadn't bathed himself in over a week). But in 1880 he took things to the next level. Following some harsh criticism, Cezanne essentially withdrew from the world, moving away from the Paris art scene back to his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and cutting off both friends and family. It was during this period of isolation that the recluse really hit his stride, producing paintings like "Bouilloire et Fruits" (1888–90) that he would be remembered for.


‘Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh

Painter Vincent van Gogh did a stint in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in 1889. While there, he was given a studio and allowed to paint, freedoms that weren’t allowed to the other patients. That same year, he produced what’s arguably one of his most famous works, “Starry Night,” the scenery coming entirely from his imagination.

‘De Profundis’ by Oscar Wilde

While serving a two-year prison sentence for “gross indecency,” playwright Oscar Wilde wrote “De Profundis” in 1897. The work was written in the form of an unfinished letter in order to get around the rules that forbade prisoners from writing publishable works while in prison. Made public after Wilde’s death, “De Profundis” details the spiritual journey Wilde went through while carrying out his sentence.

‘The Nightingale’ by Igor Stravinsky

Right after the premiere of his wildly controversial ballet “The Rite of Spring,” Igor Stravinsky contracted typhoid from bad oysters. Confined to a nursing home in Paris, he turned his attention to his first opera, “The Nightingale” (1914), which had been commissioned by the Moscow Free Theater years prior. In contrast to his earlier works, the opera was received well by audiences.

‘The Family’ by Egon Schiele

The CDC describes the 1918 influenza pandemic as “the most severe pandemic in recent history.” Among the estimated 50 million lives it claimed was that of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. While in pandemic-induced isolation, Schiele began work on what would be one of his last paintings, “The Family.” Unfortunately, the painting was never finished, as Schiele died on Oct. 31, 1918, at the age of 28.

'In Search of Lost Time' by Marcel Proust

While not all seven volumes of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" were written in isolation, many of them were. By 1919 (at which point only two of the volumes had been published), Proust had essentially become a complete recluse, only rarely leaving his apartment in the heart of Paris. Still, his 3,200-page work has been lauded as one of the best of the 20th century.

‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ by Jean Genet

French author Jean Genet wrote his debut novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers” (1942) while in prison on burglary charges. The fantasy tale follows Divine, a drag queen and prostitute who cavorts through the Paris underworld. The story is highly erotic and explicit.

‘Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery’ by Joseph Cornell

New York artist Joseph Cornell not only made shadow boxes for a living, but also lived in a box of his own making. Cornell never moved out of his mother’s home in Queens, rarely traveled into Manhattan, and had few friends and social connections. As a result, nearly all of his work was made in self-imposed isolation, including his piece, “Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery” in 1943 (not pictured).

‘The Broken Column’ by Frida Kahlo

After undergoing intensive surgery in 1944 to repair the spinal column damage from a 1925 streetcar accident, Frida Kahlo was bedridden for a significant stretch of time. It was during this recovery, alone and in bed, that the Mexican artist painted “The Broken Column.” The self-portrait illustrates the pain, both past and present, that she felt due to the accident and associated injuries.

‘The Pisan Cantos’ by Ezra Pound

In 1945 poet Ezra Pound was imprisoned for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts. During his time in the detention center, Pound suffered a nervous breakdown, out of which came “The Pisan Cantos.” A year after their publication, the poems won the Bollingen Prize for poetry, awarded by the Library of Congress, in a truly controversial move.

'1984' by George Orwell

Dystopian author George Orwell suffered from ill health for most of his life, before eventually getting diagnosed with tuberculosis. Suffering from a particularly acute bout of the illness later on in life, Orwell accepted an offer from his patron, David Astor, to live on his secluded Isle of Jura estate in Scotland. It was here that Orwell did most of the work on his most famous novel, "1984" (published 1949).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ by Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while in prison after leading a nonviolent demonstration in Alabama. Perhaps just as relevant now as it was back in 1963, it was dubbed “the most important written document of the civil rights era” by Samford University’s S. Jonathan Bass. The letter was a response to the criticisms of several white religious leaders.

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‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ by J.D. Salinger

While he is now remembered as one of the world’s most reclusive writers, J.D. Salinger was, at one point, a prominent and active member of the New York literary scene. However, in 1953, he moved out of the city to a 90-acre compound in New Hampshire where he lived in isolation until his death in 2010. It was during his time here that his last piece of published work titled “Hapworth 16, 1924” was printed in the June 19, 1965 issue of the New Yorker.

‘Exile On Main St.’ by The Rolling Stones

During the winter of 1971, The Rolling Stones were living in a mansion in the South of France in an effort to avoid tax evasion charges. The band lived together in the upper floors of the villa, turning the basement into a recording studio and set out to record an album that they’d later title “Exile On Main St.” While they weren’t in strict isolation—there were hangers-on coming and going all the time—they were far from the machine that had powered many of their previous albums.

‘Glen Sherley’ by Glen Sherley

Glen Sherley is best known for his connection to Johnny Cash—he wrote the song “Greystone Chapel,” which was included on Cash’s album “At Folsom Prison.” However, the country singer-songwriter had an album of his own, titled “Glen Sherley” (1971). The album was written entirely by Sherley while he was imprisoned in Vacaville, California, and was released by Mega Records, eventually hitting #63 on the Billboard charts.

'Music of My Mind' by Stevie Wonder

Fresh off a contract renegotiation with Motown Records in 1972, Stevie Wonder released "Music of My Mind." The album was his 14th studio recording but the first in which he wrote, arranged, produced, and played every instrument on. While the album wasn't a major commercial success, the critics loved it, and it is often referred to as the first offering of Wonder's "classical period."

’I Like America and America Likes Me’ by Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys, a German conceptual artist, arrived in New York City in 1974. Upon landing, he was rolled up into a piece of felt, shuttled inside the back of an ambulance, and transported to a SoHo gallery where he’d spend the next three days with a coyote. The performance art, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” was done in complete isolation and was intended to remind America of its melting pot mythology, beginning conversations that could return them to unity.

‘McCartney II’ by Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney’s 1980 release, “McCartney II” was the former Beatle’s second solo album. The highly experimental record featured songs like “Coming Up” and the 10.5-minute “Secret Friend.” It was also recorded solo at McCartney’s East Sussex home, with the help of some new synths, a handful of sequencers, and a rented Studer 16-track tape machine.

‘Nebraska’ by Bruce Springsteen

On Jan. 3, 1982, Bruce Springsteen had his guitar tech help him install a portable studio in his Colts Neck, New Jersey, bedroom. The musician then spent all night recording “Nebraska” (with the exception of two songs) using a Teac Tascam 144 four-track cassette recorder. The album was originally intended to be a demo for the E Street band, but Springsteen eventually decided to release it as a stripped-down, solo piece of work.

‘Runaway’ by Lucy Irvine

Lucy Irvine rose to fame when, in 1981, she responded to an ad in Time Out magazine and moved to a deserted island for a year as the wife of a complete stranger twice her age. The book she wrote about this experience, “Castaway,” wasn’t written in complete isolation, but her second book, “Runaway,” was in 1986—on the Scottish island of Tanera Mor. It details Irvine’s years as a troubled teenager fleeing home.

'Serenity (Self Portrait)' by Ray Materson

Textile artist Ray Materson spent 15 years in a Connecticut state penitentiary on armed robbery charges from 1980–1995. During this time of isolation, Materson discovered his artistic sensibilities and began stitching miniature tapestries (2.5x3 inches) that depicted life outside of prison. One of those tapestries, "Serenity (Self Portrait)," was completed in 1992, three years before his release.

‘Both Sides’ by Phil Collins

In 1993, Phil Collins was two years removed from his final Genesis album, “We Can’t Dance,” and looking to move forward in his solo career. So he holed himself up in his home studio and created “Both Sides,” an album in which he plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals. Collins also produced “Both Sides'' on his own, and deserves sole credit for its melancholy style.

‘Untitled 1995’ by V.S. Gaitonde

The entirety of Indian artist V.S. Gaitonde’s life was essentially an exercise in self-isolation. The reclusive artist had few friends and rarely engaged in anything that didn’t feed his art as “he strove to detach himself from the entanglements and entrapments of a worldly life,” according to Meera Menezes. His record-breaking painting, “Untitled 1995” is just one example of the work he was able to create as a result of this isolation.

‘Scream (Screenplay)’ by Kevin Williamson

Desperate for money and inspired by a real-life string of 1990 murders in Gainesville, Florida, Kevin Williamson set out to write a screenplay about a woman being taunted over the phone by a killer. So he secluded himself in a Palm Springs house, and over the course of three days, wrote a full-length movie treatment for what would eventually become “Scream” (released 1996). 

‘OK Computer’ by Radiohead

In 2017, Rolling Stone released an oral history of Radiohead’s 1997 album “OK Computer.” The band details how they recorded the album in almost complete isolation, after setting up a studio in actress Jane Seymour’s Bath, England, manor house. The band spent six weeks living in the house with their producer, Nigel Godrich, and in the end, came away with the Grammy Award-winning album (Best Alternative).

'Untitled #5 1998' by Agnes Martin

In 1967, established artist Agnes Martin left her New York City studio and all of her artworld connections on a cross-country road trip, eventually settling on a remote mesa in New Mexico. It was here she lived in an adobe dwelling, until old age, totally isolated from the rest of the world, emerging only a handful of times to show her new work. "Untitled #5 1998" is one of the pieces Martin made, and it currently hangs in the Tate Galleries in London.


‘Original Pirate Material’ by The Streets

The debut album of U.K. rapper The Streets, “Original Pirate Material,” came out in 2002. In an autobiography released years later, Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) revealed that the album, which reached #12 on the U.K. charts, was recorded in his home over the course of a year. Skinner turned an empty closet, deadened with duvets, pillows, and mattresses, into his recording booth and went to work, coming out with one of the most notable albums of the decade.

‘Donuts’ by J. Dilla

When J. Dilla died from the incurable blood disease TTP in 2006, NPR called him “one of the music industry’s most influential hip-hop artists.” His album, “Donuts,” which was released three days before his death, certainly supports that claim. Dilla recorded 29 of the record’s 31 tracks alone during an extended hospital stay, using a Boss SP-303 sampler and a 45 rpm record player, and the tracks have gone on to be sampled by a huge number of major stars like Drake and The Roots.

‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ by Bon Iver

In winter 2006, following the breakup of his former band, the end of his romantic relationship, and a bout of mononucleosis, Justin Vernon moved into his father’s Wisconsin hunting cabin seeking some serious isolation. When he left, three months later, he had the makings of an album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” released in 2007. Today, Bon Iver has added a number of members, but that first album was all Vernon.

‘Quality Time’ by Alberto Blanco

Alberto Blanco is best known for his poetry—to date, he has published 26 books of poetry in Mexico, translated into 20 different languages. However, during the 2009 swine flu pandemic in Mexico, Blanco spent his time in quarantine pursuing new forms of art, including abstract gouaches like “Quality Time.” From April to May of that year, he created an entire series of these gouaches, which were displayed in a New York gallery mere months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

'Shut-In' by Barbara Ess

Barbara Ess is a photographer and experimental filmmaker known for her work with a pinhole camera and her contributions to the "No Wave" art movement. She has a series of photographs titled "Shut-In" that she shot while overcoming a bout of bronchitis. The most easily recognizable photograph from that series is perhaps "Fire Escape," which was shot in 2011.

‘Cabin in the Woods (Screenplay)’ by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon

Drew Goddard told Filmmaker Magazine’s Dan Schoenbrun that he and co-writer Joss Whedon wrote the screenplay to the classic horror film “Cabin in the Woods” (released 2012) over a three- or four-day stretch. In order to get it done, the duo locked themselves in a hotel room (Goddard upstairs, Whedon downstairs) and proceeded to work from 8 a.m.–1 a.m. every day. The end result is a film that induces genuine chills.

‘Art Angels’ by Grimes

When she was recording her third album, “Visions,” Grimes (née Claire Boucher) spent nine days in total isolation, without food, sleep, or company, to meet the deadline set for her technopop tracks. For her fourth album, “Art Angels” (2015), Grimes took things a step further, singing, writing, producing, and recording the entire album on her own. The end result was lauded by critics, topping many an “Album of the Year” list, although the musician has since backtracked on the record, calling it “a stain on [her] life.”

‘Away’ by Gints Zilbalodis

Gints Zilbalodis, a 25-year-old Latvian film prodigy, released his first feature-length film, “Away,” in 2019. The film was entirely solo—Zilbalodis “conceived, designed, animated, and scored” the entire thing without any outside help, per Variety’s Peter Debruge. The trippy adventure tale might not have the Pixar touch, but the fact that the 75-minute film was made in isolation is magic enough.

‘Winds of Winter’ by George R.R. Martin

In March 2020, “A Song of Fire and Ice” (“Game of Thrones” inspiration) writer George R.R. Martin wrote on his personal blog that he was “spending more time in Westeros than in the real world, writing every day,” giving fans hope that he might finally be finishing the sixth book in his series. The fifth installation, “A Dance With Dragons” came out nine long years ago, in 2011, and the TV series wrapped in 2019.

'When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?' by Billie Eilish

Genre-bending musician Billie Eilish and her instrumentalist/producer brother Finneas recorded her debut album, "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" by themselves in their Highland Park, California, childhood home. The duo converted Finneas' bedroom into a studio, recording tracks like "Bad Guy" amongst piles of dirty laundry and overflowing bookshelves. The album hit #1 on the Billboard 200, making Eilish the first musician born in the 21st century to reach the top spot.

‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’ by Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift released “Folklore” in July 2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic and self-imposed isolation. Featuring ballads with an indie flair, Swift's move away from pop for a more somber, introspective album felt tonally appropriate for the long months of suffering and loneliness caused by the pandemic. The album broke streaming records, became the best-selling album of 2020, and won the “Album of the Year” Grammy. Cue to a mere five months later, when Swift released another surprise album: “Evermore,” which Swift describes as a “sister album” to “Folklore.” The pandemic pushed Swift to levels of productivity most of us can't achieve in normal times. 

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