The Implicit Limitations on Femininity in “Andrea del Sarto”
When looking at various historical periods, it is always interesting to consider the social position of women at the time and reflect on how that position affects their actions. In “Andrea del Sarto,” Robert Browning blends aspects of masculinity and femininity in his two characters to emphasize the kind of restrictions traditionally placed on women. By playing with contrasts, Browning makes the claim that society has crafted femininity into a physical and emotional trap that hinders artistic creativity and happiness in order to stay within societal expectation and indirectly benefit masculinity.
Andrea del Sarto’s feminization in this poem is integral to Browning’s argument. One of the primary examples of his feminization is his “palpable craving for the security of physical and even artistic enclosure,” which places him in the domestic sphere (Loose 135). Because the domestic sphere is a hugely feminine space, his being content to permanently reside there indicates a kind of complacency with his feminization. This idea of the domestic sphere being female is widely prevalent at the time, because women had so few options outside the home and one of the nicest lives they could live is that of a housewife. Respectable women have few job opportunities and therefore spend their time caring for a home, including their husband and children. Considering Andrea is male and is not bound by these societal limitations, the fact that he would choose to lock himself within the home indicates not only a complacency with being trapped, but a fear of the outside world. This idea is extended by his “dependence on Lucrezia to shield him from the unpleasant censures he might encounter in public,” which explains his fear of the outside world (Loose 135). In this, the reader can see that his feminization is directly linked to his art and his perceived failings in art. If it were not for the potential of people critiquing his art, he may feel more comfortable venturing outside. As it is, his fear of criticism implies emotional weakness and traps him within his home, the first of many negative connotations with his art. While these physical barriers compromise Andrea’s masculinity, his emotional status also serves to feminize him.
Women are often perceived to be more emotional than men, but the prevalence of Andrea’s feelings in this poem mark him as more in touch with his emotions than is traditionally considered masculine. The way he speaks to his wife implies that he is “prioritizing romantic love over all else,” which is conventionally the habit of women (Loose 135). Society expects men to be concerned with more worldly issues and to place love below responsibilities in work and success in life. While the prevalence in current society of love coming before all else makes Andrea seem romantic, the comparison to his relatively uncaring wife makes him appear weak. Through this emphasis on love, Andrea becomes less powerful in his relationship because that love is not reciprocated. It makes him seem ignorant or overly optimistic that he still holds his love for his wife as an important aspect of his life when she is very clearly not invested in their romantic relationship. His masculinity is also somewhat threatened by “the latent eroticism of his interaction with King Francis,” (Loose 135). Naturally, there is nothing inherently feminine about homosexuality and sexual orientation has no bearing on gender, but in a time when homosexuality was less accepted, it also was not considered to be masculine. Eroticizing his interaction with his beneficiary somewhat aligns him with the practice of prostitution, a disrespected female profession. So not only does this interaction serve to feminize him, it also places him in a position of little respectability. Additionally, Andrea’s attitude toward his art is somewhat feminine. His failure in art is linked to his inability to infuse passion into his work and “he falls the harder because he does not climb so high or risk a fall,” (Benvenuto 643). This tendency to focus on perfecting form rather than putting feeling in his work is why his art cannot fully compare to the art of Michelangelo and other great artists. Playing it safe can be considered feminine in that the activities of women were more highly regulated than those of men, so taking risks was considerably rarer. By staying within his boundaries and being the worse because of it, he is exemplifying that it is much more difficult to succeed when limiting oneself, or being limited by society.
Lucrezia’s masculinization helps to emphasize the limitations traditionally placed on women. Firstly, there is her physical masculinization as her “placement in a window – that liminal position between public and private – is one of numerous signals that she enjoys a substantially more public persona,” (Loose 135). Because of the expectation that women remain in the home, Lucrezia’s positioning implies her desire to escape the home, marking her as not complacent with the restrictions of her gender. This window between her and the outside symbolizes the barriers her gender faces in entering the public world, but as she leaves at the end of the poem, we see that her masculinization has enabled her to effectively break through that window. Additionally, the fact that Andrea depends on Lucrezia to “shield” him from aspects of the outside world further establishes her as the more masculine of the two (Loose 135). This bravery is a trait that usually men try to exemplify, so the fact that Lucrezia is taking on the role of protector not only emphasizes her ability to be masculine, but also that Andrea does not even seem to be trying to be masculine.
Lucrezia’s feelings, or lack thereof, also highlight her less feminine aspects. For one, “her unsentimental view of art as a commodity,” means she appreciates art for the monetary value it brings her rather than its beauty or what it means to her soul (Loose 136). Because society expects women to be in touch with their feelings, this disregard for the emotions implicitly involved with art seems like a purposeful cast off of societal expectation. Especially as a woman during the Renaissance and the wife of a famous artist, one would assume Lucrezia would care about art or at least appreciate its value beyond monetary. Instead, the reader sees her capitalizing on the popularity of art during this time period and being more of a shrewd business person than any of the softer traits often associated with women of the time. One of the most apparent aspects of her inherited masculinity is “her open indulgence in extramarital affairs,” which was not exactly a popular choice for women of the era (Loose 136). Due to the patriarchal structure of society, men would will all their money, land, and titles to their children, which made cheating wives a tremendous threat to the family line. A man did not want to will everything to another man’s child, so the punishment for women in extramarital affairs was very harsh. This makes Lucrezia’s feeble attempts at hiding her affair all the more bold. This behavior risks a lot and the fact that she does not do a very good job at hiding it just emphasizes her masculine behavior. Men did not need to hide their affairs in the same way as women, for there was no legal punishment, and Lucrezia conducts herself as though she should never be punished for this illicit behavior. This kind of brazen attitude really can only be associated with men during this era.
By assigning traits of the other gender to both Andrea and Lucrezia, Browning stresses the differences between expectations of the two genders. It should also be noted, that while Browning used Vasari’s text Lives of the Painters to better understand his characters, some critique his monologue as “a libel on a relatively important historical figure” and argue that his use of Vasari was “arbitrary,” (MacEachen 62). This criticism emphasizes that Browning was purposeful in his choice to somewhat blend the genders of this couple and that this loose interpretation of their lives is, in fact, to make a larger claim about gender. The poem probably has little bearing on the truth of these two people because they become characters whose actions are intended to serve a larger purpose. In manipulating these characters to defy traditional gender norms, Browning explains how masculinity gives people more freedom while femininity entraps people within the home and within societal expectation.
This point is built upon with the contrast between gold and grey within the poem. One of the notable areas in which Browning mentions a lot of gold is “to describe the brief splendor of Andrea’s sojourn at the court of Francis I,” (Mendel 2). This suggests that this time at court is when Andrea was happy, which implies that his wife’s request that he return home may stifled him creatively. Especially when one considers the positive imagery often associated with gold, clear delineations are made that emphasize Andrea’s connection with the king. The notable use of grey throughout the poem seems to emphasize a kind of depression Andrea feels back at home in Italy. It also seems to emphasize twilight and “the weary resignation of [Andrea’s] spirit in the sunset of his life,” which further plays into this point of depression (Mendel 2). This contrast between the colors of the court in France versus his home continues to explore this idea of stifling creativity through confinement. While Andrea is free of his wife and expectation at the king’s court, his art flourishes and he is happy, but when he is forced home at his wife’s request and is indebted to the king to produce art, he loses that freedom and his art suffers.
There are two major aspects that account for this loss of artistic creativity, the first of which is Andrea’s physical confinement. While entrapping Andrea within the home is important to his feminization, it is also a “self-fashioned structure of ennui and alienation” that creates somewhat of a viscous cycle where he doubts himself and therefore cannot create great art, which makes him doubt himself even more (Polette 493). Then the doubt and lesser art makes him worry about what people will say about him if he leaves the house, so he not only physically encloses himself, but mentally traps himself within this cycle of self-doubt. This is where the reader really sees this idea of failure coming into play. Many critics claim that this poem is a “study of failure,” which seems to be intrinsically linked to Andrea’s more feminine traits (Polette 493). Obviously this link between femininity and failure is problematic, but physical and mental enclosure seems to be playing a large role in both of these traits. Andrea is both physically and mentally stuck. The pressure to perform at the same level as artists like Rafael has repressed his creativity and as a result his art remains caught at a level below the greats. In this, there is also the idea that his wife’s oppressive masculinity makes it so he cannot compete with these prodigious artists. He certainly seems to believe that his wife is the cause his failure somewhat, because it is at her bidding that he returns to Italy and leaves the splendor of court and thus loses his creative drive.
Another reason for the loss of his confidence in art could be the importance of receiving a lot of money for his art. When the king pays Andrea for his art in advance, “the gold of the magnanimous king is converted into gray cement to build… the four-walled prison where Andrea conceals himself,” which once again brings up the conflict between gold and grey (Mendel 2). Because the gold and the happiness associated with it from France has been turned into the grey walls which lock Andrea in, the reader can see that monetizing art can stifle creativity. Additionally, that constant, physical reminder than Andrea has already spent the money he has not yet earned places a lot of pressure on him to paint amazing works. This pressure could easily harm an artist’s creative ability, especially with the additional pressure of supporting Lucrezia, who uses his money not only for herself, but for her lover. Monetary struggles play a huge role in this conflict between grey and gold and subsequently artistic splendor and ruin.
The commoditization of his art is another way in which Browning feminizes Andrea. This poem was written around the time where “laws regarding prostitution played a surprisingly important role in the 1850s movement for a unified Italy, which Browning witnessed first-hand with intense interest” (Loose 137). Because the government was getting involved in the regulation of women’s bodies for profit, the commoditization of female bodies was a popular topic. The concept of prostitution itself is interesting as it relates to the poem because, like prostitutes, Andrea may be asked or forced to compromise his ethical or artistic values because he is being paid. While it does not seem like Andrea is actually compromising any ethical values, considering he claims “I regret little, I would change still less,” in regards to letting his parents die in poverty even though he had money, this idea of being commissioned to do art takes away some of the spontaneity that often comes with inspiration (Browning 245). Similar to prostitution, Andrea is paid to do something that would normally involve a large degree of choice and freedom, but because he is being paid, he must listen to the demands of his benefactor, effectively taking away his freedom of choice and expression. What was once a rather personal expression of self is now dictated and as thus, relatively passionless. Granting another man this kind of control over him feminizes Andrea del Sarto, while also taking away the potential for his art to be great. Lucrezia also plays a large role in this idea of financial pressure inhibiting artistic ability. Her connection with gold “occurs only in a debased form… her hair is the color of gold, but this is merely the false glitter of external attractiveness,” rather than an indication of happiness as it can be read in regards to King Francis (Mendel 2). This connection seems to largely exist because she is the person in their marriage that it most concerned with finances and the material worth of his art. His primary need to sell his paintings and be at the will of his benefactor is to maintain her quality of life, including financially supporting her lover. But it should also be noted that this is just another way in which Lucrezia is asserting a kind of masculine power. Her ability to inhabit the “powerful position as the instigator of her husband’s labor, the broker who sells his paintings, and the beneficiary of those sales,” arguably places her in the dominant position within their relationship (Loose 135). She dictates his activities and then uses the rewards from his art as she pleases, disregarding the fact that this constant drive to produce art has stifled Andrea’s creativity and locked him in a somewhat depressive spiral. This is not to say that Andrea fully surrenders all power to his wife, simply that she has subtly manipulated their relationship to get enough power that Andrea can notice and blame her for his faults as an artist. For example, when “Andrea uses the term ‘we half-me’ of himself and seems to vacillate between blaming Lucrezia and Fate for his shortcomings,” the audience sees that he considers this insistence on financial success burdensome and a hindrance to his art (Bieman 656). He recognizes that her actions have a bearing on this inadequacy he is feeling, but he still does as she wishes. He is effectively trapped by the masculine presence in his life. Andrea does not fight back against either Lucrezia or King Francis because he cares about them, even if they are indirectly impeding his artistic process. But also, his feminization makes him somewhat subservient to their desires which trap him inside the home he has not earned and set him in a cycle of artistic impotence.
By assigning stereotypical aspects of gender to the other sex in “Andrea del Sarto,” Browning exemplifies the ways in which femininity can negatively confine a person. Because Andrea embodies so many conventionally female traits while his wife takes control of their lives and has affairs, the audience can see that art is threatened when patronized. Art cannot flourish or reach its full potential without the freedom to be inspired and choose what to create. Similarly, women are unable to flourish in a society that makes them slaves to the will of their husbands. By trapping women in their responsibilities to the home and to their families when men are not so similarly trapped, women lose the freedom needed to establish a sense of self-worth and subsequently find it that much harder to find happiness. Even Andrea del Sarto, with his feminine qualities but still the social status of a man, is remarkably hindered by his place within the home. Additionally, the fact that women were so powerless that the government began to regulate the commoditization of their bodies highlights the oppression of women’s rights and freedoms. Andrea’s similar prostitution of his artwork explains the ways in which the commoditization of something that is supposed to be incredibly personal and a form of self-expression can be depressing and difficult to overcome. Finally, the fact that all of this is done for the sake of a person who does not even respect or value Andrea as a person emphasizes the atrocities women were forced into living. They could be crushed by trying to make it in a world where they would always be considered lesser, while men thrived off their societally-granted benefits.
Benvenuto, R. (1973). Lippo and Andrea: The Pro and Contra of Browning’s Realism. Studies in
English Literature, 1500-1900, 13(4), 643.
Bieman, Elizabeth. (1970). An Eros “Manque”: Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”. Studies in
English Literature, 1500-1900, 10(4), 651.
Browning, Robert. “Andrea del Sarto”. Men and Women. 1855.
Loose, Margaret A. “Blended Selves And The Spectacle Of Subjection In Browning’s “Andrea
Del Sarto.” Victorian Poetry 53.2 (2015): 133-149. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
MacEachen, D. B. (1970). Browning’s Use of his Sources in “Andrea del Sarto”. Victorian
Poetry, 8(1), 61.
Mendel, S. (1964). Browning’s Andrea del Sarto. Explicator, 22(9), 2.
Polette, Keith. (1997). The Many-Walled World of “Andrea del Sarto”: The Dynamics of Self-
Expatriation. Victorian Poetry, 35(4), 493.
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