8 Great Unfinished Masterpieces


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.

Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.


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