This poem represents yet another of Browning’s dramatic monologues spoken in the voice of an historical Renaissance painter. Andrea del Sarto, like Fra Lippo, Lippi lived and worked in Florence, albeit a little later than Lippo, and was later appointed court painter by Francis, the King of France. Under the nagging influence of his wife Lucrezia, to whom he speaks in this poem, he left the French court for Italy but promised to return; he took with him some money that Francis had given him to purchase Italian artworks for the court, and also the money advanced to him for his own commissioned paintings. However, he spent all of the money on a house for himself and his wife in Italy and never returned to France.
This poem finds Andrea in the house he has bought with the stolen money, as he thinks back on his career and laments that his worldly concerns have kept him from fulfilling his promise as an artist. As he and Lucrezia sit at their window, he talks to her of his relative successes and failures: although Michelangelo (here, Michel Agnolo) and Raphael (Rafael) enjoyed higher inspiration and better patronage—and lacked nagging wives—he is the better craftsman, and he points out to her the problems with the Great Masters’ work. But while Andrea succeeds technically where they do not (thus his title “The Faultless Painter”), their work ultimately triumphs for its emotional and spiritual power. Andrea now finds himself in the twilight of his career and his marriage: Lucrezia’s “Cousin”—probably her lover—keeps whistling for her to come; she apparently either owes the man gambling debts or has promised to cover his own. The fond, weary Andrea gives her some money, promises to sell paintings to pay off her debts, and sends her away to her “Cousin,” while he remains to sit quietly and dream of painting in Heaven.
“Andrea del Sarto” unrolls in pentameter blank verse, mostly iambic. It is a quiet poem, the musings of a defeated man. Both in language and in form it is modest and calm. Yet it also manages to mimic natural speech quite effectively, with little interjections and asides.