Pencils Down: Why Is Art Left Unfinished?


Unfinished artwork is mysterious. A piece of art can be labeled “unfinished” by a critic, by an art historian, or by the artist himself. Unfinished artwork teases us with a glimpse of what may have been. It explicates the power of an artist’s choice to stop. For viewers, it raises some questions. Did the funds runs out? Was the commission cancelled? Did the artist feel compelled to quit because he was bored of the subject matter? Or, quite simply, did the artist die before the work was completed?

Unfinished work is valuable, as evidenced by its inclusion in many notable art collections. The state of being unfinished is often viewed negatively, but let’s confront the positive aspects of these pieces. Unfinished art gives us insight into the artistic process. And it allows for the experimentation that ushers in future art movements. Don’t forget that most art viewers in Paris in the 19th century considered Impressionist art sloppy and unfinished!

Here are five of the most famous unfinished artworks, all of which are on display in world-class collections.

Gilbert Stuart, The Athenaeum, 1796

Detailed painting of head and shoulders of Washington. Over half of the canvas is blank.


Famous for his traditional portraiture, Stuart painted six US presidents, including George Washington, whose likeness he captured in a series of iconic paintings. The subsequent requests for reproductions of Washington’s portrait funded Stuart’s lifestyle for many years. The most often requested reproduction was for The Athenaeum, which is an unfinished portrait of Washington later used as his profile on the one dollar bill. Stuart never completed the work – after the profile was finished, the demand for its likeness spurred over 130 reproductions painted by Stuart and his daughters. Historians wonder if he simply didn’t see the need to finish it due to its popularity. It was left unfinished at Stuart’s death in 1828 and currently lives at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793

death of marat


Marat was a martyr of the French Revolution. This painting was even used as a sort of poster, carried through the streets by the artist and his compatriots during marches in favor of the revolution. David may have been in a hurry to finish it in time for such a demonstration. The subject’s figure is thinly painted without much decoration and the background is unfinished with evidence of only an undercoat of paint – the traditional brown underpainting so often used as a starting point by David and his fellow painters. Some scholars read this sketchy, hurried work as a comment on the short and unfinished life of Marat. It’s spontaneity and real-life emotion predict the modernist movement to arrive nearly 50 years later with Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Gustave Caillebotte. Death of Marat lives at The Louvre in Paris.

Edgar Degas, Madame Théodore Gobillard, 1869

Madame Théodore Gobillard by Edgar Degas


Speaking of Degas…the artist’s unfinished portrait of Madame Théodore Gobillard (née Yves Morisot), the artist Berthe Morisot’s older sister, is another great example of work that redefines our understanding of a completed painting. The Met Museum classifies this portrait as unfinished due to the nature of the image – sketch-like in background and figure, thinly painted with evident underdrawing – but interestingly enough, you can find Degas’s signature at the bottom of the canvas. It’s as though Degas challenges us to accept his decision that the work was finished enough for his “John Hancock”.

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481

adoration of  the magi


Our friend Leo was a genius. A scientist, a philosopher, an artist, and an inventor – Leonardo excelled at design and achieved great fame during his lifetime for many innovative and visionary projects, despite never having a formal education. He also had a short attention span as evidenced by the numerous projects he abandoned due to disinterest and boredom. Adoration of the Magi is one of his most famous abandoned works because it attempted to show a new portrayal of the traditional religious scene by adding background figures, such as energetic horses and human figures. Although another, unknown painter attempted to complete it, this painting was never finished but remains a crowd-pleaser on display at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.

Théodore Rousseau, The Forest in Winter at Sunset, 1846

the forest in winter at sunset


Landscape painter Rousseau started working on this painting in 1846, and it is unclear if he ever touched it again before his death in 1867. It is given central importance in an area dedicated to the artist’s work within the Met Museum and gives us great evidence of his artistic process – the brushstrokes, material, and under-layers reveal Rousseau’s meticulous study and love of movement. These gestures – bold and expressive – were ahead of their time, foreshadowing the brushstrokes later found in Impressionist and Expressionist art. Historians are curious as to why Rousseau abandoned the work but often wonder if he simply felt content with the unfinished state.


Feature Image: Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist (1528-37) from “Unfinished… Works from the Courtauld Gallery”