What causes a painting to be left unfinished? Did the artist run out of inspiration? Did their commission money dry up? Did they get bored, frustrated, or disenchanted? Did the artist or their subject die before completion? Behind every picture lies a story, and that is especially true of incomplete works. This list looks at ten unfinished paintings and the intriguing, surprising, and poignant reasons why.
10 – The Adoration Of The Magi,
Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was the embodiment of the statement, “Quality takes time.” He was notoriously slow to finish any work because his vast array of talents kept sidetracking him into other avenues such as engineering, science, and mathematics.
By 1481, da Vinci was living in Florence and had been commissioned by Augustinian monks to paint The Adoration of the Magi, depicting the Three Wise Men’s arrival to meet Jesus. Within a year, Da Vinci had created an initial life-size draft, which was over 2.1 meters (7 ft) squared and portrayed the under-paint tones.
However, shattering the notion of a renaissance man working on his vocation, da Vinci chased the money. In 1482, he left to win favor with the wealthy future duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro. It was worth the gamble, as it was in Milan that he was commissioned to paint The Last Supper. Da Vinci completed only six paintings in the 17 years he was in Milan, and The Adoration of the Magi was recommissioned and repainted by Filippino Lippi. Both versions still stand today at Uffizi gallery in Florence.
9 – Treaty Of Paris,
By the end of the American Revolution, all parties involved were understandably looking for the best terms of agreement, so a US delegation including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin headed to Paris to begin talks with the French, Spanish, Dutch, and British in 1783. The talks were a huge success for the Americans, as they validated the independence of the original 13 states as well as fishing rights and the release of prisoners of war by the British. To celebrate, famed historical artist Benjamin West was appointed to paint a picture depicting the occasion.
There was just one hitch: The British delegates refused to be painted, as they felt their defeat was shameful. As a result, the picture has a gaping blank space where they would have been. Unfortunately, throwing their toys out of the pram didn’t work, and the half-finished painting still exists in the library at Adams National Historical Park in Massachusetts.
Self-taught and nearly illiterate, Benjamin West’s paintings bought him fame and fortune from both sides of the Atlantic, and he was even elected president of the Royal Academy twice in the United Kingdom. He is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
8 – Victory Boogie Woogie,
Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s abstract works are known throughout the world for the way that they convey city layouts in the most basic elemental colors and shapes.
Reflecting the musical influences and energy of New York, Victory Boogie Woogie was never finished due to Mondrian’s unfortunate death from pneumonia in 1944. Looking closely at the picture, we can see that the bolder, simpler lines have been replaced with smaller, more vibrant squares of sticky tape as the painting developed. Alongside the musical influences, the name Victory Boogie Woogie also represents Mondrian’s enthusiasm and belief that the US and the Allies would help win World War II.
Housed at the Gemeentemuseum in the Netherlands, the sale of the painting for $40 million in 1998 caused controversy when it transpired that the money had been donated by the Dutch Central Bank, raising questions about whether it was truly worth $40 million.
7 – James Hunter Black Draftee,
American portrait artist Alice Neel’s oil painting James Hunter Black Draftee is a great example of how a painting can be finished yet incomplete. Despite not finishing the work physically, Neel decided that its incomplete nature actually conveyed the emotions she wanted, so she put her signature on it and displayed it in the Witney Museum. The story behind why the painting is incomplete is a poignant one.
Unappreciated for most of her career, Neel would often invite strangers to sit for a portrait. In 1965, she invited James Hunter, who had just found out that he had been drafted for service in the Vietnam War. The first sitting captured his melancholy and contemplative look. Neel finished most of his face and drew the outline of the rest of his body.
Hunter never turned up for the second sitting. Mysteriously, his name never appeared on the list of soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so we can assume that unless he used a pseudonym, he didn’t die in Vietnam. However, his whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
6 – Madonna With The Long Neck,
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (also known as Parmigianino due to his birth in Parma) was an Italian Renaissance painter who painted in the Mannerism style of exaggerated and elongated proportions to suggest beauty and grace. Commissioned to paint a picture of Mary and Jesus for a funeral chapel, Parmigianino spent several years tinkering on Madonna with the Long Neck before dying of a fever in 1540.
A renowned perfectionist, Parmigianino is perhaps a classic example of not knowing when to stop. Despite several drafts and stagings, he never quite achieved what he wanted, and the tampering has led to several noticeably incomplete areas. Not only are the column and sky unfinished, but the figure of Saint Jerome in the bottom right corner has a floating foot next to him.