Robert Browning

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What are Browning's views on art and artists?

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Several of Browning's poems discuss art and artists. Chiefly (as mentioned above) the extended monologue "Fra Lippo Lippi" examines an artist painting a church scene, which invites a discussion concerning the point of art. It is more or less concluded that painting is a reasonably pure lifestyle (the titular character can paint as he pleases), but he still feels derided by society when compared to other artists before him. This presents artists as somewhat at the mercy of the tastes of the culture in which they live. I would also adduce "Pictor Ignotus" (1845) as having an artist as its subject. The title character here expresses discontent and boredom at rendering the same religious themes over and over again; however, "no merchant traffics in [his] heart" (62). In both poems, the artist is one who stands apart from society but is also at its mercy.

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The most obvious statement about art is in “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in which Browning, in Lippi’s voice, defends the artist’s life, his balance of art and commerce, and his impulse to visualize the values of human life.  But, more subtly, in “My Last Duchess,” he expresses the servitude and subservience of the artist, in the Duke’s arrogant attitude toward the artist at work: “I said Fra Pandolph by design…” And even more subtly, “which Claus of Innsbuck cast in bronze for me.”  The class structure here shows that the duke (and by implication other patron of the arts) feels superior to the artist, whom he treats as “purchases” who distort nature and beauty into commodity.  Browning himself felt he was not free to express himself, but was obligated to those who held his livelihood in their hands.

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