'Unfinished' at the Courtauld

June 25 2015

Image of 'Unfinished' at the Courtauld

Picture: Courtauld

I do like unfinished pictures - so am looking forward to seeing a new exhibition-ette at the Courtauld in London on unfinished works from their collection.

It's interesting to see how the aesthetic of the unfinished is a relatively modern phenomenon. A fair proportion of the mis-attributed pictures I come across are in fact unfinished works that have been 'finished' by a later hand. What appear to be badly painted passages, which make one doubt the whole picture even if it has some good parts, are in fact the efforts of a later artist trying to mimic the style of an earlier (better) one. I particularly find this with head studies - at Christie's last year there was a Rubens head which had been given a body and hand by (probably) Jan Boeckhorst (below).

I presume such works must have been fiddled with because the collectors of yore did not want unfinished works on their walls. But nowadays we love unfinished works and studies, because (if they're by a great artist) they have a timeless, even contemporary feel about them.* The second highest auction price for Van Dyck, for example, at over $7m, is for a double head study of a bearded old man (below) - which is not your usual commercial subject, but it's just so brilliantly painted. 

Coincidentally, the current Christie's sale has a Van Dyck head study of the same sitter (below), who appears to have been one of the young Van Dyck's favourite models. Like the Rubens above, this picture had once been extended, and turned into St Peter by a later artist - but now the additions have been removed.

Anyway, there's a little more on the Courtauld's 'Unfinished' exhibition here at the Courtauld website, and even more here on the Christie's website (which puts the Courtauld one to shame).

* I discuss all this further in my recent podcast for the Financial Times.

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