What exactly constitutes a finished work of art? Is it when an artist deems the work is complete? Does a signature mean they have “signed off” on it? What if the completion of a work was prevented by circumstances outside of the artist’s control, such as death? If left incomplete, should it not be displayed? Or do incomplete paintings show us another facet of an artist’s skill?
The emergence of Impressionism during the nineteenth-century challenged the traditional criteria for a finished work. Impressionists were criticized for their loose brushstrokes, dash-like preliminary sketches, and the unfinished look of their canvases. “To attract the attention of his or her contemporaries and to survive in the historical canon, an artist needed to create a personal identity rather than imitate a formulaic style, even if self-reliance and resistance to tradition were regarded as intransigent.” Artists strived to identify their individual style through exhibiting works the historical canon would have regarded as incomplete. Is it valid to argue that a work is unfinished if the artist feels it is complete?
Fairfield Porter: Raw/The Creative Process of an American Master at the Parrish Museum in Southampton, New York, displays the finished and unfinished works of Fairfield Porter (1907-1975). Recently, the New York Times reviewed the exhibition and posed the question: When is a painting finished? Porter was a figurative painter during the peak of twentieth-century abstraction. Art critic Clement Greenberg argued, “You can’t paint figuratively today.” Porter saw this statement as a challenge, which resulted in a unique figurative style prominent within Porter’s work. Porter’s works possessed looseness and spontaneity, characteristics unconventional to the old masters. At the exhibition at the Parrish Museum, a thin wooden frame is the only delineating element between his unfinished and finished works on display. Do these work merely reflect the looseness of the artist’s style or rather are the works unfinished? Should museums be displaying unfinished works?
It is still possible to learn a great deal from unfinished works, and museum make a small but persistent habit of placing them on view so that visitors can get an inside look at the creative process. Analyzing preliminary sketches provides the viewer insight into an artist’s thoughts and displays the experimental steps of creating a work of art. Untouched canvas also demonstrates the order in which an artist went about completing a painting.
Currently, the New Britain Museum of American Art has on display an unfinished work by the renowned colonial portrait painter, Gilbert Charles Stuart (1755-1828). His popularity came from his rich painterly style and ability to realistically illustrate his subjects. Stuart was one of the earliest American painters to achieve worldly distinction in America and Britain. Most celebrated for his many portraits of George Washington, Stuart’s work set the precedent for American portraiture for several generations. His incomplete portrait of Washington, commonly known as The Athenaeum, is his most celebrated and famous work, and is featured on the one dollar bill. Although Stuart and his daughters made over 130 copies of this painting, the original was never completed.
Due to Stuart’s death, his work Portrait of Jared Sparks on display at the NBMAA was never completed. The portrait, however, exposes Stuart’s artist process to us, as only the head of his subject has been completed. Stuart’s technique was to first block in the face of his subject, and then gradually adds details behind. Jared Sparks highlights Stuart’s ability to convey the personality of his sitter: the first professor of history at Harvard. He was, as the viewer can see, an intelligent and remarkable young man. The viewer is able to gain an understanding of Stuart’s ability to capture his subject as well as the power his portraits possed even in an unfinished state.
The controversy concerning the display of unfinished works appears to be a debate that results in a positive outcome. In the case of both Porter and Stuart, the viewer is able to gain a better understanding of the artist’s technique. Displaying unfinished works, also, gives more museums opportunities to display works by renowned artists which increase the overall experience and education of the viewer.
What do you think about incomplete works on display in museums? Is it refreshing and informative to see the creative process of artists? Or are museums supposed to only show complete masterpieces? What are the pros of exhibiting unfinished works? The cons? Can the finished pieces be more fully understood when compared to unifinished works by the same artist?
 James H. Rublin. Impressionism. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999. p 22