Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Unfinished Works in European Art, ca. 1500–1900

When, around 1566, the Netherlandish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder drew the design for The Dirty Bride on the surface of a woodblock (32.63), his precise lines in pen and ink and the finely hatched shadowy areas were bound to disappear. They were just the first of many stages in the process of creating a woodcut. Had everything gone according to plan, the professional woodcutter, who had begun his work on the upper left corner, would have transformed the entire surface; by carving out Bruegel’s pen marks, he would have removed them bit by bit. The remaining relief would then have been covered with a dark wash or ink to be printed. We do not know why the woodcutter didn’t finish his work; but unfinished as it is, the uncut block preserves a precious drawing by one of the most celebrated artists of the sixteenth century.

Just like everything else that does not go according to plan, unfinished works often hold an element of surprise. Abandoned or interrupted, they may reveal traces of the creative process in a composition that would have otherwise been turned into a unified surface and a coherent whole. As early as the first century A.D., the Roman author Pliny the Elder acknowledged the appeal of unfinished works of art, stating that they are often more admired than those that are finished, because in them the artists’ actual thoughts are left visible. A work halted in progress may thus remind us of the fundamental question of when do we consider an artwork to be finished. In many cases, it also allows us to consider the beauty of the imperfect.

The Metropolitan’s collections include works from all times and places that have been interrupted for various, sometimes mysterious, reasons. In the Western tradition, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci notoriously left work undone. Considered masterpieces in their own right, these works eventually created a mindset, leading other artists to embrace the unfinished as a “look”—Titian’s or Rembrandt’s late works being paradigmatic examples of this non finito aesthetic. Titian’s broad, visible brushstrokes were described as spots or stabs of color by contemporaries, while in Rembrandt’s case, his intention to finish a work was questioned due to his inclination to leave entire areas of works in a seemingly unresolved state (26.101.9). Understood in the broadest possible sense, the non finito can thus describe the deliberate use of the aesthetic of the unfinished as an expressive means or to a stylistic end.

In contrast, each painting or object that remained unintentionally unfinished has the unique story of its abandonment to tell. Did a commission fall through? Did the artist lose interest—and why? Or did death create this unfinished state, reminding us of the inherent unfinishedness of human life? Particularly in this last case, the pleasure of looking at something that we were not even supposed to see takes on a mournful note—a fact that Pliny did not fail to address.

One example in which “the artist’s hand while engaged in the work was removed by death” (Pliny) is Jacopo Bassano’s altarpiece Baptism of Christ (ca. 1590) (2012.99), which remained unfinished in the artist’s studio in 1592. The work is exceptional in showing the subject as a nocturnal event. Its somber atmosphere imbues the scene with a sense of foreboding, thereby tying it to Christ’s Passion. The different stages of finish find their equivalent in the relieflike distribution of material. The artist built up thick layers of paint in the diagonally organized figures and barely worked on the much flatter foreground and sky.

Entirely different in character is the unfinished state of the famous Salvator Mundi by Albrecht Dürer, Germany’s most important Renaissance painter, which makes an almost methodical impression (32.100.64). If the work was indeed interrupted, it was not by death, but by the Black Death. At an outbreak of plague in 1505, Dürer left his hometown of Nuremberg for Venice, to return two years later. Since he lived for another two decades and kept the Salvator Mundi in his studio during this time, one might wonder why he never completed the panel. The work reveals all stages of his artistic process in individual steps: the delicate underdrawing that defines the face and neck; the first layers of paint that still allow the hatching to shine through in the hand, raised in blessing, and the globe; and the fully developed hair, drapery, and deep green shade of the background. It remains unclear if Dürer created the painting as a demonstration piece or if, upon his return, he found in the interrupted work qualities that he wanted to preserve, effectively turning the unintentional into an intentional state of unfinishedness.

Not unlike Bassano’s Baptism of Christ, El Greco’s Vision of Saint John, depicting the opening of the Fifth Seal at the end of time, was left unfinished in his studio at the artist’s death (56.48). Two other related incomplete altarpieces commissioned for a church in Toledo, the Baptism and the Annunciation, were finished by El Greco’s son Jorge Manuel; The Vision of Saint John, however, remained in its suspended state, with a number of pale figures under a leaden sky, rendered with open, painterly brushstrokes. Even with El Greco’s characteristic style, which seems decades—if not centuries—ahead of his time, it is improbable that he would have left the brown areas of underpainting in the lower part of the picture and in the sky in their present undefined state. More likely, he would have added further detail to describe the setting. When the canvas was cropped during a restoration in the nineteenth century, the upper part was lost together with whatever narrative detail it may have contained, making the subject even more cryptic. With all its history, the work now brings together the expressivity of its style, the unfinished state it was left in at the artist’s death, and the fragmented nature of a cropped canvas. As it is, the flamelike figures floating above the undefined ground and Saint John pointing upward at the clouds reinforce the already visionary character of El Greco’s work. These rather surreal qualities appealed to modern painters: Picasso, for example, studied the painting while working on his early masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Jackson Pollock later created a drawing that was directly inspired by it.

Their interests reflect how we tend to interpret a non finito bravura brushwork with its air of energetic spontaneity as a modern feature. At the same time, we also seem increasingly ready to appreciate the unexpected and unresolved, the traces of process in interrupted and unfinished work, to the point where we accept an unfinished work as an entirely satisfying visual experience. Nineteenth-century landscape painting is just one example that lets us observe how our expectations of art have changed over time. The school of Barbizon had conveyed the immediacy of direct observation in plein-air painting through a spontaneous painterly technique. Artists since have taken this look even further, to a point where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to gauge by appearance alone whether or not a work is finished.

Two landscapes from the second half of the nineteenth century further illuminate those aspects that may factor into the discussion of a work’s state of finish. In The Funeral, Édouard Manet, who is often considered to be the father of modern painting, laid out with broad brushstrokes a funeral cortège under a rain-heavy Parisian sky (10.36). The painting, neither signed nor dated, was described for the first time in the artist’s posthumous inventory, under the heading “Études peintes,” as “Enterrement à la glacière”; an inscription by Manet’s widow certified its authenticity. In the twentieth century, a scholarly consensus emerged about what the painting depicts—the interment of poet Charles Baudelaire in 1867, which Manet attended; however, opinions vary on whether the work was interrupted or whether Manet painted it as a sketch, without the intention of bringing it to the higher state of finish necessary for public presentation.

Another example of a work that defies clear categorization is Cézanne’s Gardanne (57.181). Working for his own artistic quest and relatively unconcerned about the market or academic rules, Cézanne radically redefined what a finished work of art can look like. Wide areas of unpainted canvas are a common occurrence in his pictures, as are visible traces of drawn outlines; in addition, neither a work’s inclusion in an exhibition nor the presence of a signature is failsafe proof of its finished state. Accordingly, for some art historians Gardanne has served as an example of Cézanne’s acceptance of the seemingly unfinished, while others have regarded it as obviously incomplete. As in Manet’s case, the lack of any documentation leaves these questions open to interpretation.

Far less ambiguous are two figure studies by Corot and Manet. Sibylle from about 1870 belongs to a group of half-length figures that Corot created in the years after 1865 (29.100.565). Corot abandoned it for unknown reasons, yet it’s a riveting work, frequently compared to Italian Renaissance paintings. The woman’s face, with its enigmatic expression, is set against a hastily executed background. Over the initial lighter wash in the upper half, several toned shades are applied in distinguishable zigzag brushstrokes; on the lower left, glowing sienna breaks through the darker paint. X-rays have shown that in an earlier stage, the model held a cello instead of a flower—the hand that led the bow is still faintly visible above the one now resting in her lap.

Corot’s Sibylle is an example of a work that, due to its unfinished passages, acquires an aura of irresistible spontaneity and unexpected beauty; in contrast, Manet’s abandoned painting of his wife—he only created six likenesses of her, leaving half of them incomplete—is revealing in terms of process (67.187.81). As Asher Miller has observed, Manet first sketched the figure and background with broad strokes, then turned to the facial features. Here, he scraped off the face at least twice, before abandoning the picture. Amidst the loosely sketched figure and a composition of otherwise lighter tones, the hovering pitch-black shape of the hat makes for an almost surreal effect, seemingly throwing the picture off balance while at the same time anchoring it.

With Bruegel, the interrupted woodcut actually preserved a drawing that was bound to disappear. Bassano and El Greco employed an expressive aesthetic in their late altarpieces, but after death had removed their hand, the literally unfinished passages added to what we have come to appreciate as a “modern” look. Ultimately, Cézanne’s and Manet’s landscapes make us aware of how difficult it is to say when a work of art is finished. And Dürer may have even used the unraveling and revelatory qualities of the unfinished in a conscious way, laying his process open for the world to see.

Next to this possibly intentional, staged unfinishedness, Winslow Homer’s Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River (11.57) makes us contemplate the process of creation and of finishing in more general terms, as a human endeavor that, like any other undertaking, is subject to chance and determined by psychology or even fate.

Homer habitually created watercolors while traveling, as he did in 1902 on a journey to Canada with his brother Charles. Back home in his Prouts Neck, Maine, studio, he began to paint Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, using the watercolors as a basis to lay out a dramatic scene: Charles in a canoe, bracing himself against the force of nature, with two guides trying to steer the boat through the rapids. One paddle not yet painted and one just sketched in, the work shows chalk revisions and unfinished areas that retain an almost abstract nature, as in the riverbank’s methodical, dark hatching. The story goes that Homer was determined to finish the picture, but claimed he needed to return to Saguenay River to do so. Begun five years before his death, Homer kept the work in his studio, never finishing it. Elizabeth Kornhauser has suggested that the work reminded the artist of his adventures and served as a token of his affection for his brother. Whether one sees its unfinishedness as a lack of will or as the fear of mortality, the fact that there are no oars reminds us that the idea of life being controllable is an illusion.