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Unfinished Business

Below you will find photos of a few unfinished portraits by some Old Masters. Why were they left like that? For various reasons, I imagine:  the artist preferred to leave the painting as a study or was even happy with it “unfinished”, the artist or model refused to carry on because of a disagreement on style or money or, grimly, one of them may just have died. I like looking at unfinished paintings such as these because they provide a snapshot of an artist’s work in progress and reveal the working methods of the artists, their mistakes, changing ideas, habits (good and bad), handling and skill.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, c. 1637 by Van Dyck, oil on canvas, 30 x 42cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

I came across this enchanting little double portrait a few years ago at a Van Dyck exhibition in Paris. What is really outstanding for me is the very confident draftsmanship.  Van Dyck quite simply draws the girls with his paintbrush – the eyebrows and nose of the princess on the left are sketched with a dozen or so deft strokes of raw umber without corrections. The pearls are a well rehearsed series of varying soft grey pinks and off white highlights – (four or five strokes each?). The dimple in the chin on the right is simplicity itself. Already Van Dyck has placed the correct form to the corners of the mouth. I doubt this double portrait took him more than an hour.

Portrait of a Young Man by Velasquez, c. 1629, oil on canvas, 89 x 69cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

This portrait by Velasquez is finished apart from the model’s hands which are only hesitatingly outlined in black. From X-rays of other works of Velasquez this seeming hesitation is in keeping with the artist’s methods of changing his mind halfway through a portrait and shifting, for example, an arm or prop, to improve a picture’s composition. In a sense, it is perhaps better unfinished, since a white hand in the bottom right corner might have been a little distracting.

Nina by Velasquez , c .1640, oil on canvas,  51.5 x 41cm, Hispanic Society of America, New York

Above is another Velasquez. Here he painted little of the dress. Other than that, there is not much to learn from this one, but it is a lovely portrait which is why I included it.

The Shrimp Girl, c. 1745 by Hogarth, oil on canvas 63.5 x 52.5cm , National Gallery, London

Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl is all brevity and sketchiness and a refreshingly far cry from his laboured conversation pieces. What I find striking are the smile and fleeting look which he has captured in just a few strokes. The values in the face seem light, particularly the cast shadow of the nose and mouth. There appears to be some underdrawing around the cheek and chin but I can not be sure from the photograph. Unlike the other artists in this list he has filled most of the canvas before finishing the face of the model.

Below is a portrait by Johann Zoffany of the artist Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough c. 1772 by Zoffany, oil on canvas, 19.7 x 17.1cm, Tate, London

Although this is a small painting, about the size of a sheet of A4, the strokes appear very broad brush. The paint seems to have been laid boldly, confidently and unhesitatingly. We can see this particularly in the brushstrokes which are beginning to define the jacket and those depicting the neck-cloth.  Gainsborough produced several self-portraits so we can compare and be certain that Zoffany has painted here a very good likeness in spite of the small canvas.

The Artist’s Daughters with a Cat, c. 1760 by Thomas Gainsborough. oil on canvas, 75.6 x 62.9 cm, National Gallery, London

Above is a portrait of his daughters by Thomas Gainsborough. He has drawn the very briefest of outlines in raw umber for the girls’ arms (good, but, to my mind, not quite as accurate or well judged as the outlines in the Van Dyck above). Also he has left the younger girl’s ear perfunctorily drawn and leaning a little too far back and too low – to be corrected at a later date, I feel. You get the idea he is in two minds about the cat and thinking, “Is it really necessary?”

George Washington, 1796, by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 101 x 88cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although this famous “Athenaeum” portrait of George Washington ( it appears on various postage stamps and on the dollar bill) was never finished, many copies were made of it nonetheless (and they were finished). There is not much to say about the face which is excellent apart from the slight oddity that although there is a low highlight on the tip of the nose, which is normal given Stuart has painted Washington in almost flat light, there are no highlights in the eyes, at least as far as I can see. This is perhaps not entirely surprising as these are usually painted towards the end of the process. The rather geometric progression of the background and the use of an unduly small brush for it is puzzling.

By the way, if Washington looks like he is wearing ill-fitting dentures, it is because he was, and wore them throughout the pose.

Napoléon par Jacques-Louis David, 1797-1798, huile sur toile, 81 x 64cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

This portrait was originally part of a much larger painting which was cut down. David does some careful underdrawing (in charcoal?). I feel the hands are a little small (compared to the size of the head) which I assume David would have corrected later on – he had already started to correct the elbow on the right. Also Napoleon appears to be wearing rouge which I feel to be unlikely even bearing in mind his great self regard – we are probably still looking at a bit of underpainting here. Interestingly, we have here intimations of Ingres who was a pupil of David.

William Wilberforce by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1828, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 109cm, National Portrait Gallery, London

This portrait by Lawrence is on show permanently in London at the National Portrait Gallery. He has heavily underdrawn the painting even to the extent of placing  a few of the darker values about the coat. Lawrence appears very methodical in his progression and leaves little to chance. His work on the face looks meticulous and fittingly, the portrait conveys a gentle benevolence.


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