8 Great Unfinished Masterpieces

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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.

Obviously, just because a work was never technically finished doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece. For a look at another long-delayed magnum opus from Eric Jonrosh, tune in to The Spoils of Babylon on IFC, Thursdays at 10/9c.

January 16, 2014 - 7:00am
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