The Role of Art and Aesthetics in My Last Duchess
Examine the role of art and aesthetics in My Last Duchess. How does the Duke’s attitude towards his late Duchess and her portrait reflect his views on art and its purpose?
The Role of Art and Aesthetics in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
In Robert Browning‘s dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess,” the Duke of Ferrara reveals his attitude towards art and aesthetics through his discussions of his late Duchess and her portrait. The Duke’s perspective on art reflects his views on power, control, and the objectification of both people and art. This essay will examine the role of art and aesthetics in the poem, exploring how the Duke’s attitude towards his late Duchess and her portrait reflects his views on art’s purpose and its relationship to power dynamics.
I. Art as an Object of Control:
The Duke’s attitude towards art is closely tied to his desire for control and dominance.
- The Duchess’s Portrait:
The portrait of the Duchess serves as a central object of discussion in the poem. The Duke refers to it as “my Last Duchess” (line 1), emphasizing his possessiveness and objectification of both the painting and the Duchess herself. The portrait becomes a means for the Duke to exert control over the Duchess’s memory and to perpetuate his version of events.
- Display and Concealment:
The Duke’s control over the portrait is highlighted through his decision to keep it behind a curtain. He mentions that the curtain is drawn only for special guests, allowing him to control who has access to the painting and when. This act of displaying and concealing the portrait symbolizes the Duke’s power over the representation of the Duchess, ensuring that only those who meet his approval can view her image.
II. Art as a Symbol of Wealth and Status:
The Duke’s attitude towards art is also influenced by his preoccupation with wealth, status, and social appearances.
- The Duchess as an Object of Display:
The Duke views the Duchess as an object to be displayed, just like a piece of art. He states, “Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (lines 54-56). This comparison highlights the Duke’s inclination to treat his late wife as a possession, similar to an artwork or a luxury item that adds to his social standing.
- The Duchess’s Flirtatiousness and the Duke’s Reputation:
The Duke’s concern for his reputation and social image is evident when he mentions the Duchess’s flirtatious behavior. He recalls, “She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed” (lines 21-23). The Duke’s disapproval of the Duchess’s demeanor suggests that he perceived her actions as a threat to his status and reputation. To the Duke, maintaining control over the representation of the Duchess through the portrait becomes a way to preserve his own social standing.
III. Art as an Expression of Power:
The Duke’s attitude towards art is deeply intertwined with his thirst for power and dominance.
- The Painting as a Substitute for the Duchess:
For the Duke, the painting becomes a substitute for the living Duchess. He remarks, “The depth and passion of its earnest glance” (line 8), attributing emotions and intentions to the portrait. The painting allows the Duke to maintain control over the Duchess, even in death. He can interpret and manipulate her image as he pleases, emphasizing his power to shape how others perceive her.
- The Duke’s Self-Image as a Connoisseur:
The Duke considers himself an authority on art and aesthetics. He refers to the painter as “Fra Pandolf” (line 3) and appreciates the quality of his work. By associating himself with the artist and displaying his knowledge of art, the Duke enhances his self-image as a refined connoisseur. This self-perception reinforces his sense of superiority and control over not only the Duchess but also the artistic representation of her.
IV. Art as a Means of Suppression:
The Duke’s attitude towards art reflects his desire to suppress and control individuality and agency.
- The Silence of the Duchess:
The Duchess’s silence becomes a tool for the Duke’s control and manipulation. He mentions, “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (lines 45-46). By silencing the Duchess, he effectively asserts his dominance and eliminates any possibility of her expressing herself independently. The portrait perpetuates this suppression, freezing the Duchess’s image and ensuring that she can no longer challenge his control.
- The Role of Aesthetics in Suppression:
The Duke’s emphasis on aesthetics and appearance serves as a means of suppression. He values external beauty and poise in the Duchess, but he lacks appreciation for her inner self and individuality. By reducing her to an aesthetic object and controlling her representation through the portrait, the Duke suppresses her autonomy and reduces her to a passive subject.
V. Critique of the Duke’s Attitude towards Art:
While the Duke’s attitude towards art reflects his desire for control and suppression, Browning’s portrayal also serves as a critique of such perspectives.
- The Irony of the Monologue:
The Duke’s control and objectification of art and people are ironically exposed through the dramatic monologue form. The reader becomes aware of the Duke’s flaws and biases, challenging the validity of his perspective. The very act of expressing his views in the monologue form reveals the limitations of his control.
- The Duchess’s Silent Presence:
Despite the Duke’s attempts to suppress the Duchess through the portrait, her presence lingers throughout the poem. Her absence and silence speak volumes, emphasizing the limitations of the Duke’s control. The reader can sense the Duchess’s agency and individuality, even if the Duke cannot fully comprehend or appreciate it.
In “My Last Duchess,” the Duke’s attitude towards art and aesthetics reflects his views on power, control, and the objectification of both people and art. The Duke’s desire for dominance and preservation of his social image drives his manipulation and control over the representation of the Duchess through the portrait. Art, in the form of the painting, becomes a means for the Duke to exert control, suppress individuality, and maintain power. Browning’s portrayal of the Duke’s attitude towards art serves as a critique, exposing the flaws and limitations of such perspectives. The poem invites readers to question the nature of art, its relationship to power dynamics, and the potential for objectification and suppression within artistic representations.
Written by Koushik Kumar Kundu
Koushik Kumar Kundu was among the toppers when he completed his Masters from Vidyasagar University after completing his Bachelors degree with Honours in English Literature from The University of Burdwan. He also completed B.Ed from the University of Burdwan.
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