The Unfinished Portrait of General Bonaparte and the Art of Incomplete Masterpieces

by Arianne Ohman April 12, 2024

Note: This is the winning essay of the 2024 Central Texas Glasstire Art Writing Prize.

An unfinished oil painting of Bonaparte, in which only his head and the top of his shoulders are painted, the rest of of the portrait remains as a sketch.

Jacques-Louis David, “Unfinished Portrait of General Bonaparte,” c.1797 – 1798

The first time I recognized myself in a work of art, I was standing before a small oil painting of Napoleon Bonaparte. The neoclassical portrait depicts the general with a wide-eyed expression that suggests the motions of his inner mind at work, creating the impression that the viewer has intruded upon him in a moment of solitary cogitation. Though I later grew to admire the rosy coloring of Napoleon’s cheeks and his unfortunate case of hat hair, they weren’t what initially drew me to the portrait. Instead, what captured my attention was the fact that, aside from the General’s bust and a light graphite sketch of his torso, the canvas is otherwise completely untouched. 

The Unfinished Portrait of General Bonaparte, as it is officially cataloged, was begun by French artist Jacques-Louis David in 1798. David planned to render Bonaparte at the Battle of Rivoli, but never completed the painting. The masterpieces David later produced depicting Napoleon’s other imperial triumphs might have condemned the unfinished portrait to be entirely forgotten if not for the intervention of Vivant Denon, then the Director of the Louvre Museum. Rescuing the portrait from the obscurity that often befalls anything considered less-than, Denon added the painting to the Louvre’s collection of Napoleonic portraiture after trimming its canvas to better frame the small portion upon which David had worked. The portrait has since remained in the museum, where I discovered it in November 2019.

I marveled at the blank canvas, wondering what the painting might have looked like if David had committed to his plans. That the Louvre would display any unfinished portrait, especially one by an artist whose greatest masterpieces were already in its collection, astounded me. Surely nothing that hung in the Louvre could be considered anything less than a masterpiece. So could we say the same about this portrait? Aren’t the notions of unfinished and masterpiece inherently contradictory?

My stake in this question was deeply personal. The issues of unfinished plans, uncertain futures, and the inability to commit had been troubling me for a while by the time I met Napoleon. I had read philosopher Costica Bradatan’s fable of a Persian architect who designs the world’s most beautiful mosque only to then burn his drawings, agonized by the reality that no architect could ever perfectly bring his plans to reality. And even if one could, the mosque would be condemned to the unpredictability, decay, and limitations of the real world. Similarly, I had been studying Leonardo da Vinci, an artist infamous for his habit of abandoning works. Historians have since explained Leonardo’s tendency to leave his pieces unfinished, referencing his perfectionism and arguing that he likely preferred the sublime conception of his ideas to the limitations of actual creation.

Both Leonardo and Bradatan’s architect suffer from the same ailment: a paralyzing preference for the envisioned future that prevents appreciation of and engagement with the present moment. Abandoning their works perhaps indicates their belief that it is better to preserve the fantasy of an unattained and perfect masterpiece than to resign oneself to the limitations of reality.

Before I met Napoleon, I experienced the same creative malady, although the future I struggled to bring to reality was not that of an artwork but that of my own life. I was dazzled by the many possible futures for myself, all of which appeared to me perfect and exquisite. Would I become a lawyer? Work for a non-profit as a photojournalist? Launch my own handmade jewelry business? Yet when the moment came to commit to a course of action — to put my brush to the canvas — I always balked. Overwhelmed by my yearning to make a masterpiece of myself, I found myself unable to commit. Like Leonardo and Bradatan’s architect, I saw a vision of perfection in my mind, but feared my (in)ability to bring my ideas to reality. Instead, I chose to run from my plans rather than accept the limitations of the real world. As a result, I was stuck in a whirlpool of liminality and was always whisked back to the stagnant center of my dithering and perfectionism before I could reach the shore of commitment.

The presence of Napoleon’s portrait in the Louvre fundamentally challenged this worldview. I was confronted with the stunning idea that something could be cherished as a masterpiece even in an unfinished state. Staring at the unmarked space in David’s painting, I wondered if the same could be true of my own unfinished life. Might it also be worthy of the Louvre, even if it was still a work in progress? 

After hours of research, I am no closer to uncovering an official reason why Monsieur Denon and contemporary curators of the Louvre have kept Unfinished Portrait on view. Yet the mere reality of its proud display leads me to believe that Unfinished Portrait is not only an undisputed masterpiece, but also that it is laudable because of its unfinished state rather than despite it. 

In one regard, Unfinished Portrait is captivating because it reveals the unfolding of David’s thoughts on the canvas and allows viewers to glimpse the creative journey that is normally invisible in a finished work. The blank space invites us to imagine endless possible futures for the painting and engage in the artistic process alongside the artist. 

Yet in a much more profound sense, Unfinished Portrait is magnificent because it reminds us that commitment to an artistic vision will always be more meaningful and beautiful than an abandoned plan. Even a flawed and incomplete attempt to realize one’s goals is better than the unrealized contemplation of perfect possibilities. We cannot truly appreciate Leonardo da Vinci’s abandoned sketches or the Persian architect’s incinerated drawings; these fantasies of perfection died alongside their visionaries. However, David’s Unfinished Portrait is displayed in the Louvre for millions to appreciate every year, a testament to how imperfection is still beautiful and incompletion does not negate value.

In the years since my encounter with Napoleon, I’ve discovered and observed artworks that outrank it in technical virtuosity and visual intrigue. However, none of these works granted me a revelation as empowering as the one embedded in Unfinished Portrait. Looking at Napoleon, I see an image of myself: incomplete and imperfect. Yet General Bonaparte shows me that I don’t have to stake the value of my life on its attainment of some flawless vision or the degree of its completion. Rather, it is already a masterpiece in its unfolding, revision, and imperfection. Unfinished Portrait challenges me to embrace the limitations of committing to a plan no matter how flawed my execution might be; it says that to have tried imperfectly is better than to have imagined perfection. Inaction sits on a shelf gathering dust and is eventually forgotten, but action — with all its limitations and imperfections — is infinitely more meaningful and courageous. You can even hang it in the Louvre.

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Karen April 22, 2024 - 21:54

Wonderful article and perspective! Job well done!


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