This dramatic monologue is narrated by Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto to his wife Lucrezia. They live in Florence. Andrea begs Lucrezia that they end a quarrel over whether the painter should sell his paintings to a friend of his wife's. He acquiesces to her wish and promises he will give her the money if she will only hold his hand and sit with him by the window from which they can survey Florence.
He admits to feeling a deep melancholy, in which "a common grayness silvers everything" (line 35), and hopes she can pull him from it. He tells her that if she were to smile for him, he would be able to pull himself from such sadness. Andrea considers himself a failure as an artist, both because Lucrezia has lost her "first pride" (line 37) in him and because he has only one talent: the ability to create faultless paintings. Though many praise him for creating flawless reproductions, which he admits he does easily, with "no sketches first, no studies" (line 68), Andrea is aware that his work lacks the spirit and soul that bless his contemporaries Rafael and Michel Agnolo (Michelangelo). Considering himself only a "craftsman" (line 82), he knows they are able to glimpse heaven whereas he is stuck with earthly inspirations.
He surveys a painting that has been sent to him and notes how it has imperfections he could easily fix, but a "soul" (line 108) he could never capture. He begins to blame Lucrezia for denying him the soul that could have made him great, and while he forgives her for her beauty, he accuses her of not having brought a "mind" (line 126) that could have inspired him. He wonders whether what makes his contemporaries great is their lack of a wife.
Andrea then reminisces on their past. Long before, he had painted for a year in France for the royal court, producing work of which both he and Lucrezia were proud. But when she grew "restless" (line 165), they set off for Italy, where they bought a nice house with the money and he became a less inspired artist. However, he contemplates that it could have gone no other way, since fate intended him to be with Lucrezia, and he hopes future generations will forgive him his choices.
As evidence of his talent, he recalls how Michelangelo once complimented his talent to Rafael, but quickly loses that excitement as he focuses on the imperfections of the painting in front of him and his own failings. He begs Lucrezia to stay with him more often, sure that her love will inspire him to greater achievements, and he could thereby "earn more, give [her] more" (line 207).
Lucrezia is called from outside, by her cousin, who is implicitly her lover, and Andrea begs her to stay. He notes that the cousin has "loans" (line 221) that need paying, and says he will pay those if she stays. She seems to decline the offer and to insist she will leave.
In the poem's final section, Andrea grows melancholy again and insists he does "regret little… would change still less" (line 245). He justifies having fled France and sold out his artistic integrity and praises himself for his prolific faultless paintings. He notes again that Lucrezia is a part of his failure, but insists that she was his choice. Finally, he gives her leave to go to her cousin.
"Andrea del Sarto" is unique in Browning's dramatic monologue oeuvre because of its incredibly melancholic tone and pessimistic view of art. The voice, as well-drawn as usual, falls into blank verse, unrhymed, mostly iambic lines, but lacks the charisma of most of Browning's speakers. It's a fitting choice, since the character's basic approach to his dilemma is a rational, dialectical one – he follows several lines of thought in trying to find who or what is to blame for his unhappiness, reasoning through each option until he wears himself out. The piece veers between extreme moods and thoughts without any clear separations, suggesting the rhythm of depressive, desperate thought.
The irony is that his ability to rationalize does not mean he gets anywhere closer to truth, or that he is free from severe psychological hang-ups. First, a bit of history is useful. As with this poem's companion piece, "Fra Lippo Lippi," Browning was inspired towards this subject by Vasari's Lives of the Artists, which tells of how Andrea was famous in his day for his ability to paint faultless work, though he was later eclipsed in greatness by his contemporaries, compared with whose work his looked vacuous. The other historical detail Browning draws upon is the painter's artistic life: he had painted for the French king for a while, until he and his wife Lucrezia took their bounty and went to Florence, where they used that money to buy a wonderful house.
Andrea's basic dilemma can be boiled down to one that still resonates with artists today: should he pursue high art or commercial art? Obviously, the two are not mutually exclusive, but the pursuit of the former demands great ambition and a willingness to fail, whereas the latter can be produced according to more easily categorizable formula. Andrea acknowledges that an artist ought be drawn towards the demands of high art, which pushes him to reach for the heavens: "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" (lines 97-98). And yet he repeatedly chooses to stay Earth-bound, choosing to create paintings for money, to stay within his comfort realm (in which he can create faultless paintings without any difficulty) and thereby maintain a high standard of living.
He spends the monologue seeking the cause of his choice. The most common cause he returns to is his wife, so much so that he wonders whether his more acclaimed contemporaries have perhaps gained in ambition by lacking a wife. It's clear that he is under Lucrezia's thumb, both at the beginning – in which he acquiesces to painting for the sake of her "friend's friend" (line 5) even as it bothers him – and at the end, when he sends her off to a 'cousin' who is more than likely a lover, and whose debts Lucrezia forces her husband to work in order to pay. And yet, for all the ammunition he has to despise her, Andrea consistently pulls his punches. He accuses her of infidelity, of lack of faith in his art, of not having a "mind," but each time retreats and forgives her everything. Time and time again, he comes back to himself, insisting that he chose her. One question that then emerges is: does his refusal to directly confront her reveal a kindness in him or a weakness, a fear of recognizing his own inability to confront her and by extension himself?
His idea of ambition and great art seems well-founded and falls into a philosophy Browning often espoused, the doctrine of the imperfect. Like many artists before and after him, Browning believed that great art has to be willing to fail, whereas an artist like Andrea, who refuses to compromise his ability for faultless work, can only produce pretty pictures that reveal no depths of humanity. Perhaps the most telling irony of the poem comes in the speaker's continual return to the painting that sits in the room; he constantly notes how its arm is imperfect and how he could fix it, even as he notes that it reveals great soul in its artistry. In other words, while Andrea endeavors to discover the cause of his unhappiness, he reveals to the reader that his inability to take risks lies deep within himself.
It is here that the basic arc of the poem is revealed: ultimately, through his struggle to blame fate and Lucrezia for his unhappiness, Andrea constantly returns to himself as the villain. The dramatic irony is uncharacteristically light in this poem, because Andrea basically knows the answer to his query. Not only did he choose Lucrezia in the first place, but he also chose to escape France with her. Further, he chooses to let her go off to her lover, whom she refers to as her "cousin," and he chooses to continue painting in a way he despises. The deep fear at the heart of the poem is a fear of having no inspired purpose, of having talent but no direction. The heart of such despair is so deep that Andrea will use his every rational facility to avoid looking into that question, and so he instead convinces himself that all will be okay. His greatest weakness is that he barely asks the hardest question: what if all of this means nothing? Perhaps were he to fully confront that question, he would create work that resonated in a deeper way than his current paintings. But he is unwilling or unable to do so, and convinces himself that he chooses the material over the heavenly world, hoping he will be forgiven for future generations for the choice, even as he is deep-down certain that will not be the case.