Perhaps the sketch of a work is so pleasing because everyone can finish it as he chooses.

— Eugene Delacroix

For nine years in a row, I attended a public school in New Jersey named Washington Elementary.

Every classroom sported a framed print of Gilbert Stuart’s famous unfinished George Washington (called by art historians The Athenaeum Portrait),

It hung with majesty at the front of every room, six inches above the blackboard.

By my calculation, I stared at that painting for no less than 10,000 hours.

That juvenescent  saturation could explain my affinity today for non finito (“not finished”) paintings—paintings deliberately left incomplete.

Inspired by Renaissance sculptures like Michelangelo’s Four Slaves, non finito paintings, by revealing a bit of the process of painting, let the viewer in on the action.

Art historians trace non finito paintings to the philosopher Plato, who believed no painting could imitate its subject.

All painting, for Plato, is σκιαγραφία (“shadow painting“).

Painters don’t paint subjects; they merely paint the pale shadows of things.

“The beauty of created things can never fully satisfy,” Pope John-Paul II, echoing Plato, said in his 1999 Letter to Artists.

Or, as Michelangelo put it 400 years before, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Imitation aside, too many details will kill a good painting, because they’ll leave the viewer out of the picture.

Incompletion—sketchiness—on the other hand, invites the viewer in by giving her work to do.

It’s like inviting a dinner guest to your home, handing her a broom and saying, “Here, Maud, sweep the kitchen floor.”

Everyone loves to lend a hand.

Scholars insist Gilbert Stuart left The Athenaeum Portrait incomplete because he didn’t want Martha Washington to have it.

According to artist Rembrandt Peale, the First Lady persuaded her husband to sit for a portrait by Stuart “on the express condition that, when finished, it should be hers.”

Stuart, however, wanted to keep his masterful painting, so left it undone.

I have another theory: Stuart left the painting sketchy because he wanted us to work on it; to lend him a hand; to discover how to complete it ourselves.

Even if it takes 10,000 hours.

Above: Tangerines by Robert Francis James. Oil on canvas. 16 x 12 inches. The Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Oil on canvas. 48 x 37 inches.