Is It Finished Yet? By Joseph Orr

I’m sure many artists, like me, think a painting is never really finished until it leaves the studio. Of course, there are paintings that never even see the light outside the studio because they are not ‘finish-able’. There is a phenomenon known to all artists, maybe it occurs in all creative occupations, of projects begun with every measure of enthusiasm but come to an impasse at some point and remain forever incomplete. Something happens along the painting process and the artist loses interest, the energy that carries the work forward gets interrupted or, for whatever reason, the artist just never returns to complete the work. To my mind there is only one way to declare a painting completely finished – sell it off the easel!
   Then consider also that there are artists whose particular style depends on NOT completing a painting. Truly there is the argument that some kind of statement is conveyed through the unfinished state of their particular art works.  I knew an artist with Hallmark Cards, back when I haunted all the talents working there, that purposely left her canvases half unpainted. Her theory being that it was superfluous to paint beyond the focal point of the picture.
     Consider the most famous of all unfinished paintings which you have seen countless times. The one on the one dollar bill.  One of the most revered portrait artists of American History, Gilbert Stuart, painted a portrait of George Washington in 1795. It was such a success that Mrs. Washington requested Mr. Stuart paint another, just for her. However, George was not as cooperative for the second sitting so Stuart was only able to paint Washington’s face and some of the background. Referred to as the Athenaeum Portrait because of subsequent owners, the finished part was replicated dozens of times by Mr. Stuart. Using the unfinished work as reference, ‘copies’ were finished and sold for $100 each. A good sum of money in the late 1700’s. Gilbert’s justification for not finishing his work was that G.W.’s likeness was so hard to get because of his reserved nature and because his dentures, made of very uncomfortable materials after all, caused his jawline to protrude, hence distorting his face. Consider the frustration from the viewpoint of both parties! After what must have been a difficult session Gilbert kept this part of Washington’s face, strictly for future reference.
    On a later occasion artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff was commissioned to portraitize President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943. Not happy with the result and because Mr Roosevelt repeatedly insisted that his portrait be painted straightaway, she returned to the task in April, 1945 near the end of the war. Though she had heard he was ill it was her intension to capture the stature and dynamism of FDR. He was in good spirits during the week of the sitting at the Little White House, FDR’s retreat in Georgia. While Shoumatoff was painting, the President complained of a headache. Mr. Rooseselt suddenly slumped forward, unconscious and died later that day having suffered a stroke. (Talk about a tough critic). In the room at the time, watching the artist at work was Lucy Mercer Rutherford, FDR’s former mistress who had arranged the commission. Ms. Shoumatoff eventually completed a portrayal of Roosevelt and sold a photograph of the original to the New York Daily News for $25,000.00. The unfinished painting she donated to the Roosevelt Memorial at the Little White House in Warm Springs, GA where it hangs today.
   Even if a painting is finished, it may be considered unfinished by critical viewers. Think ‘impressionism’. The original impressionist artists took that moniker for their movement from an insult hurled by the press at one of Claude Monet’s paintings, “Impression Sunrise”.   Critics heaped scorn on the work presented in an early impressionist exhibit as UNFINISHED. Further insults compared it to wallpaper.
   So, I think the next time I have a painting for which the uncertainty of the state of completion hangs in the balance, I’ll not fret about it, or rush to judge it one way or another.  I’m going to go pour a glass of wine or mix a martini and come back when I can see clearer!

NOTE:  In reading the stories behind these two famous unfinished works I discovered an eerie fact. It just so happens that both portraits of two of our great presidents, in whatever unfinished state and under whatever circumstances, were painted on the same day, April 12, exactly 149 years apart. In 1796 and 1945.

I must leave you with this very apt quote from my good friend Kenn Backhaus:  “If there would be one suggestion that I would advise a representational artist, it would be to trust your eyes, observe and compare.  The translation from either an on-location scene or studio reference material is one best achieved by using and trusting your eyes first!  For instance, if the eyes are not trusted and the mind takes over and suggests what to tell the hand to do…the hand unfortunately will follow the minds sometimes corrupted commands, hence errors are produced as a result. Control your mind to first trust what your eyes observe and compare…”
 Kenn Erroll Backhaus

To learn more about Joseph Orr, visit his website at and sign up for his newsletter!

Joseph is a Signature Member and a Founder of the National Oil & Acrylic Painters’ Society.

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