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Art Interrupted: The 5 Most Famous Unfinished Paintings

Artists fail to complete their paintings for many reasons. Sometimes outside events intervene. Other times they lose the spark of inspiration and creativity. In some instances, they may deliberately leave their work unfinished in order to make an artistic statement. Whatever the reason, incomplete paintings hold a certain allure. To art aficionados, the greatest unfinished works are evocative of what could have been.

1. Unfinished Portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Probably the most famous unfinished painting, "Unfinished Portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt" is well known not for the reputation of its painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff, but for the historic event which took place while it was being painted. While vacationing in Warm Springs, Ga. at his part-time home The Little White House, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to sit for a portrait. His mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd arranged for him to sit for Shoumatoff, a fashionable portraitist of the era. The portrait itself is considered to be a highly flattering depiction of the President, who was emaciated and obviously ill at the time. On April 12, 1945, her second day of painting the President, Shoumatoff was filling in the outlines of his face and shoulders. Roosevelt experienced a severe pain in the back of his head and collapsed. He died three hours later in his bed, leaving Harry S. Truman to succeed him. As a result, the painting was never finished. It remains on display in the Little White House, a testament to the vagaries of fate.

2. The Adoration of the Magi

Leonardo da Vinci has been affectionately referred to as a "brilliant slacker" by art historians. Although more famous for his staggering genius than his short attention span, Leonardo would often abandon projects when he lost interest in them. "The Adoration of the Magi" was no different. Botticelli had already dealt with the same subject twice. In 1481, Leonardo followed suit with a celebration of the contrast between light and dark commissioned for the church at San Donato a Scopeto. In typical Leonardo fashion, he deviated from traditional interpretations of the Magi to create something entirely new. In addition to the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the Magi, he also included whirling horses and frightening human figures in "The Adoration". However, he abandoned the work before it was completed. Further analysis has suggested that another artist attempted to finish the painting. Even unfinished, the painting is a testament to Leonardo's skill and vision.

3. The Entombment

This unfinished depiction of the burial of Jesus is one of the more hotly contested paintings in the art world. Some art historians attribute it to Michelangelo. Based on documents of the period, it is known that Michelangelo was commissioned in 1500 to paint an altarpiece for the chapel at Sant'Agostino in Rome. One set of historians insists that this commission was never even begun, while another cabal contends that "The Entombment" is in fact the work discussed in the documents. Whatever its provenance, "The Entombment" is an interesting addition to the vast collection of Renaissance-era paintings focusing on the Passion. It has been criticized for a certain rawness and especially for the flatness of its perspective. Those who attribute the work to Michelangelo see this as evidence of a future master's last lingering traces of inexperience, while scholars on the opposite side view it as a confirmation that "The Entombment" was painted by a lesser artist.

4. The Death of Marat

Like Shoumatoff's "Unfinished Portrait", "The Death of Marat" is known not for its artist's fame, but for the historical events that surrounded its creation. Like the life of the slain revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, the background was unfinished. This was a deliberate move by Jacques-Louis David, who painted the scene the same year Marat was murdered in his bath. The portrait presents a somewhat glorified view of Marat. Although the treatments for his debilitating skin disease are apparent, the vinegar-soaked turban around his head and the soothing bath, his skin is smooth, and there are no signs of the ravages of the disease. Marat's marble skin and his tranquil visage in death echo earlier depictions of Jesus. With his incomplete composition, David effectively replaced the religious icon Jesus Christ with the political hero Marat.

5. Portrait of Gustave Geffroy

Cézanne's portrait of famed art critic Gustave Geffroy is essentially the result of vanity on the artist's part. After Geffroy wrote a flattering letter in the Paris publication "Le Journal" about the notoriously shy artist, Cézanne was eager to meet him. Cézanne agreed to paint the critic in his library surrounded by his books, papers and a plaster model given to Geffroy by his good friend Auguste Rodin. Although Geffroy and his family admired the emerging portrait, Cézanne was not pleased. Well known for his changeable nature, Cézanne soon formed a marked dislike of the critic. Dissatisfied with both subject and portrait, Cézanne decamped for the country, leaving the bewildered Geffroy with an unfinished likeness of himself. The portrait is well thought of today, despite some criticism of the spatial distortion of the desk. Cézanne himself admitted that he based the work on an earlier portrait of novelist Louis Edmond Duranty by Degas. Given Cézanne's well-documented aversion to Degas, chief rival of Cézanne's close friend Claude Monet, it is quite possible that a reluctance to imitate Degas's work contributed to his decision to abandon the project.

About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, and avid reader. She written on contemporary and classical art in various print publications, and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.

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