"Works Done Least Rapidly, Art Most Cherishes"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: By emphasizing that the development of art is a continuous progression to better, more perceptive pictures, Browning says that earlier, inferior periods of art should not be overlooked and laments the tendency to neglect the painters of the late Middle Ages who taught the great masters. Without these painters–the history of art is distorted, because while the masters perfected techniques that enabled them to portray the subtleties of the flesh, these painters–Giotto, Fra Angelico, or Ghirlandajo–stressed the qualities of the spirit. The art of the High Renaissance was technically perfect but, according to Browning, lacked soul; the work of these neglected artists did not have perfect techniques but was superior because it caused men to look toward heaven rather than at the painting itself. Inferior as works of art, the paintings of the late Middle Ages are superior as testimonies of the spiritual struggles of man. The quotation comes from the part of the poem in which Browning imagines how he would defend the old pictures from the scorn of a typical art critic.

The Artificer's hand is not arrested
With us; we are rough-hewn, nowise polished:
They stand for our copy, and, once invested
With all they can teach, we shall see them abolished.
'Tis a life-long toil till our lump be leaven–
The better! What's come to perfection perishes.
Things learned on earth, we shall practise in heaven:
Works done least rapidly, Art most cherishes.