Although the world around him is hardly idyllic, the narrator of "Fra Lippo Lippi" writes of the necessity of "paint[ing] all."

"First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
From good old gossips waiting to confess
Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,-
To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration, half for his beard and half
For that white anger of his victim's son
Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
Signing himself with the other because of Christ
(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years)
Till some poor girl, her apron o'er her head,
(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
I painted all..." — (Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi")

Even the most sacred subjects are not to be omitted from the canvas: in his metaphorical discussion of the artist in society, Robert Browning professes the need to describe "every sort of monk, the black and white/I drew them, fat and lean." Publishing The Way We Live Now twenty years after Browning's manifesto, Anthony Trollope seemingly takes this advice to heart. His merciless expose of late Victorian society spares no defect, even in characters as august as Melmotte and well-heeled as Sir Damask. Although the two authors establish different emotional tones in their commentaries, they share an essential belief in the artist's responsibility to provide a realistic portrayal of his society.

"It was not above once in the year that this kind of thing was done at Caversham; but when it was done, nothing was spared which could contribute to the magnificence of the fete. Lady Pomona and her two tall daughters standing up to receive the little Countess of Loddon and Lady Jane Pewet, who was the image of her mother on a somewhat smaller scale, while Madame Melmotte and Marie stood behind as if ashamed of themselves, was a sight to see. Then the Carburys came, and then Mrs. Yeld with the bishop. The grand room was soon fairly full; but nobody had a word to say. The bishop was generally a man of much conversation, and Lady Loddon, if she were well pleased with her listeners, could talk by the hour without ceasing. But on this occasion nobody could utter a word. Lord Loddon pottered about, making a feeble attempt, in which he was seconded by no one. Lord Alfred stood, stock-still, stroking his grey moustache with his hand. That much greater man, Augustus Melmotte, put his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, and was impassible. The bishop saw at a glance the hopelessness of the occasion, and made no attempt. The master of the house shook hands with each guest as he entered, and then devoted his mind to expectation of the next comer. Lady Pomona and her two daughters were grand and handsome, but weary and dumb." [Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, Oxford Classics, I, 187-188]

Art, as Browning envisions it, extends beyond mere visual representation. He sees the artist as creator — producing poetry, novels and drawings — but also as a mirror of the community which produced him. In Fra Lippo Lippi, a Renaissance painter whose vivid work stirred the natives of Prato to violence, he finds a model of that activist artist. For art is not merely a gift, but a responsibility; as Browning goes on to write, "God uses us to help each other so/lending our minds out" ("Fra Lippo Lippi," lines 305-306). This distinctively Ruskinian view of art as a moral property leads Browning to conclude that every aspect of human life is not only valid material, but necessary to a faithful depiction. "The breathless fellow...fresh from his murder" follows closely the affectionate mention of "good old gossips," just as the "poor girl" and the "brute" are equally essential members of the societal portrait.

In The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope implements Browning's philosophy of realism. His highly detailed descriptions emphasize the characters' coarseness: Madame Melmotte and Marie are "ashamed," the Longestaffes, although "grand and handsome," succumb to their usual "weary and dumb" demeanor, and the generally loquacious bishop is flummoxed into silence. Trollope shares Browning's commitment to recording even his most depressingly accurate impressions — yet through his prose technique, Trollope takes Browning's theory of art one step further into the realm of form.

In spite of the fact that Browning often depicts the basest elements of society, his lyrical style initially conceals the startlingly harsh content of "Fra Lippo Lippi." The girl's "intense eyes" and "bunch of flowers" invoke pathos, where Trollope's blunt narrative inspires nothing so much as contempt for the bumbling Lords Loddon and Alfred. The two authors coincide, however, in their use of dialogue: as Trollope causes his characters to speak naively or foolishly, as the case requires, so does Browning indicate the irreverence of his poem through his diction. "Zooks!" cries the narrator of "Fra Lippo Lippi" — an exclamation as realistically colloquial as the description of Lady Pomona's dinner party.

Victorian Web Overview Robert Browning

Last modified 1996