Unfinished Art at Met Breuer

What does it mean for a piece of art to be “finished”? What does finished art look like? Who decides when art is finished? These are among the thought-provoking questions asked in The Met Breuer’s current exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, on display until September 4, 2016.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Emilia, Lady Cahir, Later Countess of Glengall, ca. 1803-1805

Unsurprisingly, much of the art in the exhibition is unfinished. Often, that means that there are blank spaces on the canvas, areas sketched but not painted, or significant differences in how complete some parts of a piece of art looks versus surrounding areas. But not everything looks unfinished to the non-discerning eye, and it is only by reading the card next to each piece of art that the visitor learns that the artists considered some works unfinished.

What complicates the analysis even further is the fact that some artists made deliberate choices to leave parts of their work unfinished, a technique known as non finito. And other pieces were never intended to be finished works of art, instead serving as “sketches” or preliminary studies for a later project.

Here are some of my favorite paintings from the exhibition. Unfinished includes 197 works in all, so this is really just a small sample of what you will see if you visit. I’ve deliberately not noted which category each painting may fall into – see if you can figure it out yourself! (I welcome readers’ thoughts about the paintings in the comment section!)

Vincent Van Gogh, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890
Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain (begun 1783)
Gustav Klimt, Posthumous Portrait of Rita Munk III, 1917-1918
Pablo Picasso, Woman in a Red Armchair, 1931
Pablo Picasso, Harlequin, 1923
Paul Cezanne, Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar, ca. 1898

I was also excited to see this particular work, by Leonardo da Vinci. (As you can see, it was very well-protected, creating quite a challenge to get a good photo without too much reflection.)

Leonardo da Vinci, Head and Shoulders of a Woman (La Scapigliata), ca. 1500-1505

The exhibition included more than just paintings – here is one of my favorite sculptural pieces.

Bruce Nauman, Andrew Head, Andrew Head Reversed, Nose to Nose, 1990

The Met Breuer is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of three separate Met Museum campuses. Only open since this past Spring, The Met Breuer primarily supports The Met’s contemporary and modern art programming. The Met Breuer is located at 945 Madison Avenue, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street on the Upper East Side, in an incredible building designed by architect Marcel Breuer. The building was formerly the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art until that museum recently moved to a new home in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.


If traveling by public transportation to The Met Breuer, you can take the 4 or 6 train to the 77th Street Station. There is also a bus stop for the M1, M2, M3, and M4 buses close by. (The buses travel uptown towards the Bronx, or north, along Madison Avenue. If coming from areas north of The Met Breuer, you take take the same buses traveling south or downtown along Fifth Avenue.)

Note: Unlike the other Met locations, The Met Breuer is not open on Mondays. If you purchase a ticket at any Met Museum location (including The Met Breuer, the Cloisters, and the main museum on Fifth Avenue), you can get into all 3 museums on the same day for one entrance fee! It’s not a far walk from The Met Breuer to The Met, which is located on Fifth Avenue between 80th Street and 84th Street.

15 thoughts on “Unfinished Art at Met Breuer

  1. What an intriguing concept! I don’t know that I dare hazard any guesses. The Van Gogh sky looks as if it might be incomplete, if I compare it with other skies of his I’m familiar with. The puff of ghostliness in the peace negotiations one has to be incompleteness given the date of the painting: if it was more modern it could be some kind of commentary. Klimt I’m not sure about. Picasso’s red armchair goes in the unfinished pile.

    What’s my score????

    1. You’ve done very well, Meg! The Peace Negotiations painting has an interesting story behind why it is unfinished. Benjamin West wanted each of the people in the painting to sit for him. The Americans eventually all did, and we can see each of them in the painting as a result. The two British generals, on the other hand, were not very happy with the war’s outcome – and they would never agree to sit for the artist. That’s why the painting was never finished, although he ultimately painted a second version that was completed. The Klimt painting is also unfinished. Klimt was commissioned to do the portrait of this young woman who had committed suicide after being jilted by her fiance. He painted two versions which the young woman’s family rejected, and he then started this one, which was the third. Unfortunately, Klimt died before he could finish the portrait. You were right about the others – they were unfinished!

  2. What a fascinating exhibition. It is curious to see how different artists went about their paintings. Some seems very mathematical and deliberate, some seems more random. Great post.

    1. That is one of the things that I found interesting about this exhibition as well – I could really see a lot about each artist’s process, which was fascinating.

  3. I don’t think a piece is really ever finished–you just chose to let go of it. At least two of the paintings above look like you take them out and hang them–one definition of finished I guess. Didn’t care if the heads are finished they are great! made me laugh out loud.

  4. Great theme for an exhibition. I can imagine there is a lot of unfinished work. An artist who gets bored with his work or gets stuck will abandon it. Apparently Michelangelo left a lot of his work unfinished.

  5. First, thank you for following my blog! And second, I like this post very much — perhaps because I like “unfinished” work in general. The fact the piece is unfinished leaves open more possibilities, and it continues to pulse with that additional energy. Of the ones you show here, I am most captivated by the Klimt portrait. The woman herself is now of the mind, no longer solid physical presence, so the vaporous presentation fits perfectly.

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