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The Unfinished Work


The Adoration of the Magi

by Leonardo Da Vinci


Dear Friends

Recently a student expressed a situation that we all can benefit by examining.  She stated, “For whatever reason, I rarely work on my art. Does this happen to anyone else? I still love it and think of it often, but have several unfinished projects.” Has this happened to you?  Hmmm, I bet it has and more than once.

At the outset, let me first say that an “unfinished work” is still a “creative work.”  In some fields work may appear unfinished but is actually finished, such as Donatello’s “non finito” technique in sculpture which appears unfinished because part of the block is sculpted, allowing the image to appear as if it rises out of the stone or in the reverse is immersed, “sleeping,” as it were, in the stone.

There are many reasons why “unfinished work” exists.  Perhaps because their creator’s health interrupts the process, or death prevents completion.  In some cases, projects exceed the artist’s ability to meet the task, the cost, the deadline.  Even the creator’s dissatisfaction of a work’s development leads not only to its abandonment, but often to the creation of an entirely new work that meets and suits the artist better in every aspect. Critics, as well as the observer, often speculate as to the whys and wherefores behind the work being abandoned. In some cases, others may finish the work and release it after the death of the original artist.

Unfinished works have both influenced and inspired others to complete their own projects. An unfinished work can also refer to ongoing work. On the other hand, “incomplete work” refers to work that was once completed, but whose parts have been lost over time, as in Theophrastus’ Inquiry into Plants 350 -287 BC where of the 10 volumes written only 9 survive.

Added to all the reasons above, artists may deliberately leave their work unfinished in order to not only leave a statement, but reveal a clue about themselves and their process. And this last aspect, is something that has been enormously helpful in my work.  Once, after examining over 40 completed works of William Hooker at the Lindley Library in London, I came across an “unfinished work.”  There it was…a clue to his process.  I understood how he achieved the depth of his colors by careful examination of what was.  His “unfinished work” became both a clue and a statement of what could have been.

We have all heard about the unfinished works by Leonardo who has been affectionately referred to as a “brilliant slacker” by art historians. Leonardo often abandon projects as he lost interest in them. In 1481, the church at San Donato a Scopeto commissioned Leonardo to begin work on “The Adoration of the Magi.” Employing his “sfumato” and “chiaroscuro” techniques he created an interpretation of Virgin Mary, Jesus and the Magi that not only differed greatly from the two previous paintings of the subject completed by Botticelli, but gave testimony to his great skill, vision, and techniques. All of this evidenced in an “unfinished work.” The painting has been housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy since 1670.

But let’s not forget Michelangelo of who Juergen Schulz wrote about in an article in The Art Bulletin (Volume 57, No. 3 {Sept. 175} pp. 366-373, entitled “Michelangelo’s Unfinished Works.”  In the article he quotes Vasari who gives two explanations: “[1] The artist’s incontentability…[and 2]… ideas that lay “beyond the reach of his hand…[He continues]…Seventeenth and eighteenth-century theoreticians made no attempt to go beyond the basic notion that Michelangelo abandoned works because he was dissatisfied with them.”

These Renaissance masters, and others, who left unfinished works by their makers, often gave insight into the process of their creation.  Rembrandt was once asked why so many of his works look half-finished. He replied: “A work of art is complete when in it the artist has realized his intention.”  This includes what The Met Breuer Museum in Manhattan refers to in their 2016 Exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” The exhibit showcases works made over some 600 years and displays the work of artists who partake in non finito—intentionally unfinished works that are not just unresolved but left perhaps open-ended for the reconstruction of the viewer. The Met explains that “some of history’s greatest artists explored such an aesthetic…”  Unfinished works are represented in times other than in the Renaissance, such as the Baroque and Modern periods.  They also include media, prints, sculpture, and architecture, and genres, most importantly portraiture.


A few more reasons for the “unfinished work” include a statement by Paul Cezanne … “finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.”


Portrait Of A Lady (Unfinished)

Gustav Klimt – Date: 1917-1918

Or perhaps, the commission dries up; you get frustrated, interrupted, or can’t bear to finish. So many fall in these categories including Gustav Klimt, Charles Dickens, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood;  Sagrada Familia a Roman Catholic cathedral in Barcelona that has been under construction since 1882; Mozart’s Requiem; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; and if you will forgive including myself with this lofty group, I have at least twenty unfinished works telling tales, not to mention those hovering over my head waiting to be born.

So, Yes, it happens to everyone.  There is no room for guilt as the studio awaits.

And as the Bible says, “Return to Me, that I may return to you.”  So the best advice I can give myself and you, is to return to your work over and over again, and the spirit of the gift will return to you.

God bless.




The Met Breuer

Art Museum

945 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10021


For further reading, you may want to obtain the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition offers a 336-page fully illustrated catalogue that constitutes the most exploratory, yet also comprehensive, introduction to date of the long history of the unfinished in the visual arts, film, and literature. The book is divided into two main sections that roughly correspond to the periods 1435–1900 and 1900–2015. It contains essays by 13 curators, scholars, and a conservator on a range of artists and subjects related to the theme of the unfinished. The catalogue also features interviews with five contemporary artists—Vija Celmins, Marlene Dumas, Brice Marden, Luc Tuymans, and Rebecca Warren—whose work is represented in the exhibition; and a section of brief catalogue entries on each of the objects featured in the exhibition that explores the significance of the work, with an emphasis on its place in the broader narrative and, frequently, an account of its reception. The catalogue is published by The Met and distributed by Yale University Press.  The catalogue is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc. and the Roswell L. Gilpatric Publications Fund.


1.Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible –  

You can purchase it here:


2. Read more about Leonardo’s unfinished work here:

Unfinished Perfection –  Leonardo’s

‘The Virgin and Child with St. Anne’


3. You Gonna Finish That? What We Can Learn From

Artworks In Progress


4. List of works by Leonardo da Vinci

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



One Response to “The Unfinished Work”

  1. Jan Kravec says:

    Love this article especially all the works that are in our heads waiting to be created! I have a gallery full of those…. Lol!