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  • Russ Ramsey

Unfinished Work

Today’s Art Wednesday is about unfinished art. Everyone has unfinished work, unfinished business. What have you started but not finished? Why? Today we’ll see examples of unfinished works of art and look at the stories behind them.

Unfinished Michelangelo with David


Vincent van Gogh, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890. A sad one. Van Gogh moved to this town in May 1890. He died in July 1890. It is very possible this painting is unfinished because van Gogh died before he could complete it.

Van Gogh, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise (Unfinished), 1890


Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara, 1437. Van Eyck was one of the first oil painters. This signed and dated work has puzzled historians. The question is whether this is an elaborately drawn unfinished painting or a finished drawing with color added.

Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara (Unfinished), 1437


Elizabeth Shoumatoff, Unfinished Portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1945. Roosevelt hired Shoumatoff to paint his presidential portrait. On Roosevelt’s second day of sitting for the portrait, April 12, 1945, the president collapsed in his chair. He died 3 hours later.

Shoumatoff, Unfinished Portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Unfinished), 1945


Rembrandt, Artist Drawing from the Model, 1639. Interesting case. This is an etching. Its copper plate still exists. This means Rembrandt made a print of his unfinished composition. Perhaps he suspected it wasn’t working. Maybe the print confirmed it.

Rembrandt, Artist Drawing from the Model (Unfinished), 1639


Michelangelo, Manchester Madonna, 1497. One of only three existing panel paintings from Michelangelo. This fascinating work offers a look at the artist’s process—some parts seem completely finished, some in process, others completely empty.

Michelangelo, Manchester Madonna (Unfinished), 1497


Cezanne, Portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895. Cezanne abandoned this one because it wasn’t coming together as he hoped. To me this is a salute to those half-written novels with unresolvable plot snags, songs with broken choruses, poems that fall apart.

Cezanne, Portrait of Gustave Geffroy (unfinished), 1895


Michelangelo, Atlas Slave, 1525-30. One of four unfinished sculptures intended for the entrance to Pope Julius II’s tomb. Now, Atlas and the other “slaves” line the “Hall of Prisoners,” through which people must pass to see Michelangelo’s David.

Michelangelo, Atlas Slave (unfinished), 1525-30


Unfinished work is unavoidable, but not without function. Often when what we set out to create fails, the reasons why lead to something better. Sometime the only way to find our way is to try things, learn why they aren’t working, make adjustments, and try again.

DaVinci, The Adoration of the Magi (unfinished), 1482

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