By: Roberta Smith
NY Times, Jan 9, 2014
Unfinished paintings are enticing cracks in the facade of art history, lures along the path to a deeper understanding of artistic processes and impulses. For all the paintings that artists complete, countless others are left incomplete for any number of reasons — poverty or war, a change of plan or vision, the illness or death of the artist. While many of these works have been destroyed, and others forgotten, some are now recognized as significant works of art, accorded a special place in history and in an artist’s body of work, in part because they can bring us closer to understanding the mysterious process of painting, and, indeed, to painting’s future. After all, nothing inspires a young artist like a close look at how an earlier one worked.
I started thinking about unfinished canvases on my first, euphoric visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s reconfigured galleries of European paintings last spring. Everything seemed new, even paintings I had seen scores of times. That’s how I came to be transfixed by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “Aegina Visited by Jupiter,” specifically by a striking mass of loose, brushy gray hovering above the reclining, mostly nude form, a cloud that would have done Monet proud. I consulted the label, which explained that that portion of the painting was unfinished.
Unfinished paintings can feel contemporary because the history of Western painting is to some extent about an ever-increasing unfinishedness and loosening of surface. Think of the progression from the startling exactitude of van Eyck and the velvety brushiness of Titian to the painterly roughness of the Impressionists.
Additionally, unfinished paintings are mysterious, even eliciting a slight sense of voyeurism, since we are looking at things that were supposed to be covered over but in the end were not. What halted their progress besides death, some loss of interest or failure of ambition? Perhaps it was the feeling, conscious or not, that the work was actually finished and would be recognized as such by coming generations?
Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Met’s European paintings department, told me that Pliny wrote of painters and sculptors signing their work “faciebat” instead of “fecit” — that is, “Apelles was doing this” instead of “Apelles did this” — and that Titian and Michelangelo both used the former at least once.
The surfaces of paintings in the Met’s galleries of 19th-century art hide less and less from us. Increasingly assertive brushwork is the rule. There are, of course, those who remained loyal to tighter, more academic rendering, or took it to breathtaking extremes. Such is the case in Gallery 801 with “Odalisque in Grisaille,” painted by the master of smooth, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (and his workshop), between 1824 and 1834. A smaller, more simplified version of Ingres’s imperious “Grande Odalisque” (1814), which is in the Louvre, this work is so precise it resembles a photograph. Yet, unbelievably, it is unfinished. Look closely, and you’ll see signs of relative roughness in the sketchy foreground and dappled background, with the inner portion of the gleaming silk curtain at the right giving some notion of Ingres’s idea of finished.
Gallery 802 contains a beautiful monster of unfinishedness by the landscape painter Théodore Rousseau. Measuring over 5 feet high and 8 feet across, “The Forest in Winter Sunset” sits in the center of a long wall devoted to the artist’s work. Rousseau began the canvas in 1846, when he was in his mid-30s, but despite the urgings of friends, it remained unfinished at his death in 1867. Whether he continued to work on it until then is not known.
It is mainly a welter of roughly rendered trees in dark brown and black for a dense screen of trunks and bare branches that blocks out all but a few vividly orange embers of the dying sun. The sky is a feeble ocher and gray that might be preparing to snow, laid on in broad strokes. This is an extremely assured work, one that presages not only the Impressionists but also Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock and Still. You wonder if Rousseau had an inkling of how advanced it was and left it alone.
In Gallery 815, you’ll find two unfinished works by Edgar Degas, a male nude from 1856 that becomes increasingly blocked in as you move from the highly finished head and shoulders toward the feet, and the sublime “Madame Théodore Gobillard (Yves Morisot, 1838-1893),” a portrait of the sister of the painter Berthe Morisot seated indoors. The Met considers the portrait unfinished, although the artist’s signature could be read as an intention to redefine what “finished” looks like. Except for a patch of brightly painted garden visible through a door in the background, the image is a delightfully thin skin of black, gray and white, brushed on casually but with unerring accuracy. Economical use is made of negative areas (the sitter’s hands and arms, visible through chiffon sleeves), while boldness prevails elsewhere (in the dress itself, in the broad sofas and in the heavily framed mirror). The head is an exquisite bit of underdrawing.
To get a sense of what it would have taken to finish this work according to more conventional definitions, you have but to walk into the next gallery, 810, make a sharp right and study Degas’s “Portrait of a Woman in Gray” from around 1865. What a difference. Degas seems to have decided that with Madame Gobillard, less was more.