Famous Unfinished Works

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Many creative works owe their fame and iconic status to their unfinished state. The most common reason many works were abandoned is the death of the author or artist who created them. But there are other reasons, too. It may be that the creator chose not to finish it due to loss of interest, lack of funds, or other circumstances beyond their control. Or, there was a newly commissioned work coming their way. Or they just liked it to leave their works as they were, believing that they would create an air of intrigue.

Indeed, there is a particular allure to these unfinished creative works – there’s the the aura of mystery surrounding them. It gives observers to imagine their own “finished” versions had these works been completed. But some unfinished works have been appended by other artists (an example is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem, which was finished by his acquaintance Franz Xaver Süssmayr following the former’s untimely death). On the other hand, some works appear unfinished but are actually finished (a case in point is Donatello’s non finito technique in sculpture, in which his works look incomplete but are actually finished).

Here are some examples of unfinished literary works, musical pieces, artworks, and architecture and construction:

1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

title page of canterbury tales

Geoffrey Chaucer devoted almost a decade to writing The Canterbury Tales from 1387 to his death in 1400. His work promises two stories of twenty-seven pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, and another two stories on their way back home.

The English poet intended to write more than a hundred tales, but his death prevented him from doing so. As a result, a collection of only 24 tales made it to his book.

2. Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

first page of Requiem score

Mozart’s Requiem is probably the most famous unfinished piece of classical music. He died in 1791, aged 35, while writing the piece. Due to Mozart’s prestige and as well as his untimely death, numerous myths and legends have since surfaced regarding the circumstances surrounding Requiem’s creation.

The unfinished composition left the fully orchestrated first movement, while the other nine movements were left in the varying stages of completion. Since Requiem received half of the expected payment up-front, Mozart’s wife tried hiring someone else to secretly finish the work so that she could collect the rest of the money. Composer and conductor Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s acquaintance, finished the nine incomplete movements and even penned four more.

3. Sagrada Família by Antonio Gaudi

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Família is an unfinished Roman Catholic minor basilica by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. It is located in Barcelona, Spain.

Construction of the church started in 1882, and Gaudi took complete control of the project a year later, re-designing it. His death in 1926 left the church only partially completed. After Gaudi’s demise, construction of the church continued, albeit slowly, as the project relied only on private donations. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, construction was halted, leading to the destruction of Gaudi’s workshop that contained his original plans, sketches, and small-scale plaster models of the church, many of which were partly destroyed.

Up to now, the construction is still ongoing and is expected to be completed in 2026. When the work is finished, the final design will reflect the contemporary adaptations of Gaudi’s original plans.

4. “Portrait of George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart

unfinished portrait of George Washington

American painter Gilbert Stuart is regarded as one of the most respected portrait artists during his day, with his clients including presidents and members of the royalty. His 1795 portrait of the first U.S. President, George Washington, became so successful that Washington’s wife Martha requested the artist to do another portrait of her husband. Work on the new portrait began in 1796, but after completing only the face and part of the background, Stuart intentionally left the painting unfinished, believing it would create more intrigue. It turned out to be Stuart’s best-known work, and Washington’s likeness in this painting has been used on the $100 bill note up to this day.

5. David-Apollo by Michelangelo

unfinished marble statue of a naked man

The Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo left behind several unfinished works, including David-Apollo, a marble sculpture that dates back to circa 1530. Scholars and art historians are divided regarding the naming of this artwork — is it a “David” or is it an “Apollo”? But there’s one thing that they all agree upon – it is unfinished.

The sculpture had been commissioned for the private palace of Baccio Valori, who was appointed temporary governor of Florence by Pope Clement VII, who happened to be a member of the Medici clan. But Michelangelo left Florence (around the time when Clement’s rumored illegitimate son Alessandro de Medici was made duke), leaving the sculpture unfinished.

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