8 Great Unfinished Masterpieces

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Some creators say a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. Others would point out that seriously, these aren’t finished.

1. The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer’s tale promises two stories by pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, and another two stories on the way back home. But you never read those stories in high school English because Chaucer never got around to finishing them. Scholars blame Chaucer’s busy business life—he worked at the Port of London, moved to Kent to be the Justice of Peace, later worked as a member of Kent’s parliament, and then shuttled back to London as a clerk for the King.

2. Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart died while penning the Requiem. Since he received only half the payment for the composition up-front, his wife tried hiring someone else to secretly finish the piece so she could collect the rest of the money. It was eventually finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and has since undergone many other revisions.

3. The Brothers Karamazov

Anyone who’s read Dostoyevsky’s philosophical tome may think it’s long enough. But it was supposed to be just “Part One” of a larger work called, The Life of a Great Sinner. But a few months after finishing Brothers, Dostoyevsky gave up the ghost. We can only assume his funeral-goers ate pancakes afterward.

4. David/Apollo

Scholars can’t agree whether Michelangelo’s sculptural creation is a David or an Apollo—but they all agree that, for whatever reason, it wasn’t finished. They’re not sure why.

5. Raphael’s Transfiguration

Although it’s considered one of his best works, Raphael left 16 sections of the painting unfinished when he died. Assistants had to finish some of the figures at the lower left.

6. The portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt

The watercolor by Elizabeth Shoumatoff was painted on April 12, 1945 at Roosevelt’s Georgia retreat, the Little White House. The duo took a break for lunch, where the President complained, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” He slumped in his chair and was soon declared dead from a stroke. Shoumatoff later finished a second version, but the original remains incomplete.

7. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

The towering church in upper Manhattan is one of the largest cathedrals in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s complete. Construction began in 1892 and was on-again, off-again. It’s still missing its spires.

8. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan

The story goes that Coleridge took some laudanum, fell asleep, and dreamed up the poem in its entirety. He woke in a doped-up stupor and started scribbling. But he was interrupted before he could finish and had to leave for an hour on business. When Coleridge returned to work on the poem, his inspiration—and his buzz—was gone.

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.

Learn to Paint Like Bob Ross in an Upcoming Facebook Live Event

Public television hero Bob Ross may no longer be with us, but you can still paint happy little trees in his honor. October 29, 2018 marks what would have been the 76th birthday of the beloved art teacher to the masses, and to honor his memory, the Quarto Group—publisher of the new book Painting With Bob Ross—is hosting a live-streamed painting party online.

Painting With Bob Ross provides step-by-step instructions to help you create some of the master’s favorite oil landscapes on your own. While Quarto’s October 23 painting party (a collaboration with Bob Ross, Inc.) can’t teach you how to mimic Ross's soothing voice, the celebration does include a painting session with Bernie Oropallo, a Certified Ross Instructor, who will demonstrate the techniques that Ross taught on The Joy of Painting.

Promo for The Quarto Group's Bob Ross painting party
The Quarto Group

The live-streamed instructional session will take place within the offices of a youth arts center in Beverly, Massachusetts, called Express Yourself. Oropallo will lead you through the process of painting “Distant Mountains,” one of the artworks included in the new book.

The painting lesson kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on October 23. To participate, log onto Facebook and head to the QuartoCreates page to join the live event. Before it starts, check out the event page here for a list of the supplies you’ll need to complete the painting. If you can’t make it to a computer that night, grab Painting With Bob Ross on Amazon ($15) to get the next best thing. If that’s not enough for you, we suggest you curl up with the official Bob Ross art book and/or a Bob Ross coloring book.

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