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Monday, March 18, 2019

Unfinished Masterpieces

Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-40, Parmigianino
One of my "pet peeves" as an art instructor for many years were perfectionists. These were often fine artists of whom I joked, "gave perfection a bad name." I've always suspected such people simply feared starting a new project to the point they seemed to hang on to the previous one eternally. I have nothing against an attempt to achieve the highest standards in ones work...up to a point. Then there develops the scientific principle of diminishing returns. Or, as I put it, some things are too major to fix and not major enough to worry about. History fails to record whether Girolamo Bedoli held the same opinion as I regarding this artistic trait but he certainly encountered it during his time as the painting master for a young man named Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola. Today we know him better by his nickname, Parmigianino (the little one from Parma).

 Study for Madonna With The Long Neck, Parmigianino,
Parmigianino Self-portrait,
at the age of twenty-one
Parmigianino (left) was a perfectionist who often tinkered with his works to a fault. He ended his life in debt and disgraced by the church after failing to adequately complete a fresco-commission in his native Parma. But he is remembered primarily for the curious grace and elegance of his elongated figures, represented best in the Madonna of the Long Neck (top) painted between 1534 and 1540. That's six years and it was still incomplete! Parmigianino's obsessive working of the fine composi-tional details of the figures meant that he left other parts--the sky, the columns, the partially faded figure of Saint Jerome in the bottom-right background--incomplete. Incidentally, the face peering over the shoulder of the virgin is identical to a portrait he painted in 1524 of Antea Fox (below), said to be his girlfriend. The strange mystic quality of the painting is arguably heightened by the unfinished details. The self-portrait at left was created using a convex mirror.

A comparison of the two paintings leaves little doubt as to the identity
of the girl peering over the Madonna's shoulder.
Perfectionism is by no means the only reason major works of art go unfinished. Sometimes events intervene giving the artist good reason for leaving a painting unfinished. In 2012 Contemporary painter Natalie Holland began a portrait of the athlete, Oscar Pistorius (below). The commission was in celebration of Pistorius, a double-amputee who ran with the aid of specially-designed "blades," becoming the first with his condition to compete at the non-disabled Olympic Games. While Holland was still painting, Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide following the death of his partner, Reeva Steenkamp, from gunshot wounds. Deeply disturbed by the event, Holland left the painting incomplete, making it a haunting monument to the faded glory of Pistorius and the tragic loss of Steenkamp.

Oscar Pistorius, 2012, Natalie Holland (unfinished)

The famous painter, Jacques-Louis David encountered a similar confluence of events causing him to leave unfinished what might have been his greatest masterpiece. David, the most prominent French painter of his day, became a follower of Robespierre and supporter of the French Revolution towards the end of the 18th century. The unfinished canvas of the 1789 Oath of the Tennis Court (below), depicts a crucial moment of solidarity and purpose for the revolutionaries. It includes certain heads and figures partially-completed in oil paint. The exposed musculature of their sketched bodies seems to break through a surface to reveal detailed, impassioned faces. The first engravings showing The Tennis Court Oath only appeared in 1790, the year David convinced the Jacobin Club to launch a national subscription to fund a painting to depict the event. He exhibited a pen and brown ink drawing of his planned painting in the Louvre in 1791 but did not have enough money to follow it through as the subscription had only had a 10% return. The National Constituent Assembly thus decided to fund the work from the public treasury instead, topped off by selling engravings of the painting. Numerous political events intervened causing the artist to eventually leave the work is disgust. It’s possible the unfinished work is even more evocative of the National Assembly’s struggles than a completed painting would have been.

Upper image: David's unfinished canvas when the money ran out.
Lower Image: A copy based upon David's false start.
Pietà Rondanini, 1552-1564,  Michelangelo
Perhaps the best excuse an artist might have for leaving a work unfinished is death. Michelangelo’s final sculpture the Ron-danini Pieta (left) he began in 1552. He died in 1564, frail, and in ill health at the age of 89. The marble sculpture depicts the moment when Jesus’ body was cut down from the cross, falling into the arms of his mother. The artist began carving a muscular, idealized Christ, much in the high-Renaissance style. At some point during the process, however, he had a change of heart. The curved arm of the old figure remains, but the sculptor has dug deeper into the marble to begin forming a broken, emasculated corpse. It’s possible Michelangelo realized as he progressed that changing his mind as to his vision of the scene was not such a good idea and simply abandoned the work. However the unfinished results may well be the most human and touching depiction of Christ ever done by Michelangelo, even as it re-mains unfinished.

On a less noble note, we find an American painter who left his most important portrait unfinished out of what could only be termed, sheer greed. Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished version of Washington has become one of the most instantly-recognizable portraits in history after its use as the basis for the President’s image on the one-dollar bill. Though Stuart and others painted many portraits of Washington, this particular painting has most endeared itself to the American public. Nineteenth-century critic John Neal even went so far as to say, “Though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart’s Washington.”

Gilbert Stuart Self-portrait, 1778
Stuart was born a few hundred miles north of Philadelphia in 1755, in what was then the colony of Rhode Island. The son of a Scottish settler who made snuff in the family basement, a young Gilbert Stuart honed his precocious artistic talents under the guidance of the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander. In 1775, amid the clamor of the American Revolution, Gilbert relocated (fled?) to Europe to forge a career as a portraitist. He found little success until the highly sought-after American-born painter, Benjamin West, took the younger artist under his wing. Under West’s tutelage, surrounded by the work of the foremost British portraitists, Stuart began to blossom. After leaving London for Dublin in 1787, “Stuart came promptly to dominate the portrait market,” In a letter a friend and fellow artist, Stuart wrote of his upcoming return to his native land: “There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits…I will repay my English and Irish creditors."

Leaving his portrait of Washington unfinished made a great excuse for not delivering it to Martha Washington as promised.
Stuart made his return in 1793. After working for a year in New York, Stuart finally travelled the 80 miles to Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. Armed with a letter of introduction from a new patron, the Chief Justice John Jay, Stuart left his calling card at Washington’s house in 1794. A year later, the President sat for Stuart for the first time. By all accounts Washington was sullen and cross, annoyed at having to sit for so long. Stuart, who was known for his temper as much as his charm, and who often refused to finish a work if he found the sitter dull or unattractive, brought his best behavior to these sessions. His first painting, known today as the Vaughan Portrait, shows Washington from the waist up: Stuart painted him proud and tall and lit from behind, as if haloed.

The unfinished portrait of Washington
as we know it today, cut down to
obtain a more pleasing composition.
That painting was so successful that, according to artist Rembrandt Peale, Martha Washington “wished a Portrait for herself.” She persuaded her husband to sit again for Stuart “on the express con-dition that when finished it should be hers.” Stuart, however, did not want to part with the picture and left it unfinished so that he could refer to it when producing future commissions. Known as the “Athenaeum” portrait because it went to the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart’s death, this is the painting which served as the basis for the engraving of Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill. Stuart painted some 130 copies of his long delayed portrait of Washington which he sold for $100 each. Martha never did receive her promised painting.

Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, begun in 1915, still under construction today. 
It might seem hard to believe, but at least one artist began his most famous work never intending it to be finished. Antoni Gaudi was not a painter but a Spanish architect born in 1852. He died in 1926 at the age of 73 leaving behind a large Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona. Sagrada Familia (above, meaning holy family) represents the peak artistic achievement of the Catalan architect and designer. Such was the ambition of GaudÍ’s visionary modernism that his designs are yet to be completed more than 90 years after his death and more than a century after his church was begun. Eighteen spires are planned (of which eight have been completed) representing the 12 apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four evangelists, and Jesus Christ himself. The facades and interiors are replete with carvings and sculpture reflecting the natural world, telling bible stories, and decorating the whole building with intricate, neo-gothic modern art. It's as if Gaudi, fully aware of all the other unfinished works strewn through the history of art, sought to outdo them all. The best estimate as to completion of Gaudi's masterpiece is around 2026...or 2028, sometime thereabouts.


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