The Painter by John Ashbery

The Painter by John Ashbery

Q. Critically explain the poem The Painter by John Ashbery.

John Ashbery’s “The Painter” was published in 1966 in his poetry collection “Rivers and Mountains.” This book contains poems showing Ashbery’s unique approach to poetry, including his use of language and how he structures his poems.

Explanation of The Painter by John Ashbery

Stanza 1

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

In the poem “The Painter” by John Ashbery, we see a unique interaction between an artist and his subject, the sea. The artist, who spends time painting the sea, harbours a wish.

He hopes that the sea will take over the task of painting and capture its essence more accurately than it ever could.

The link between children praying in silence and the painter’s wish shows how both involve a misunderstanding of how things work. Children might think praying is just being silent, not realizing the depth or intent behind a prayer.

Similarly, the painter wishes for something impossible: the sea painting itself. The idea here is about the longing for a direct, unmediated expression of the sea’s nature onto the canvas.

It suggests a yearning for authenticity in art and a reflection on the limits of human creativity in truly capturing the natural world.

Stanza 2

So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”

In this part of “The Painter” by John Ashbery, the painter does not get any paint on his canvas while waiting for the sea to paint itself.

The people living in the buildings around him notice this and advise him. They suggest he should start painting more traditionally, using his brush to create art.

They advise him to choose a subject that’s easier to manage and more aligned with what a painter might feel or want to express, similar to a prayer.

This means that instead of waiting for the sea, which is too big and wild, to paint itself, he should focus on more minor, more personal subjects that he can control and that reflect his emotions or desires.

Stanza 3

How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

In this stanza, the painter faces a challenge. He wants to let nature take over the canvas instead of traditionally creating art, but he struggles to explain this desire to the people around him.

They expect art to be something an artist controls and creates with tools like brushes. To address this, the painter paints his wife in a way that reflects his original wish.

He paints her grandly, comparing her to vast, ruined buildings. This choice suggests he is trying to capture something beyond just her appearance, something more powerful and natural.

Making her vast, like ruined buildings,

By comparing her to these large structures, he makes her seem more significant than life, imposing, and perhaps even a bit overwhelming.

This choice reflects a shift from trying to capture the sea to focusing on a human subject, yet he still applies the same sense of scale and awe.

It indicates that, like ruined buildings, her character has a history and depth. It evokes a sense of past beauty, resilience, and perhaps the scars of experience.

He wants the portrait to feel like it came into being on its own, as if nature had a hand in it, bypassing the need for his brush.

This approach blends his desire for nature to lead the creative process with the expectations of creating recognizable art.

Stanza 4

Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.

In this part of the poem, the painter becomes more hopeful and decides to paint again. He uses seawater on his brush instead of regular paint, showing his strong connection to the sea.

As he starts to paint, he asks his soul to guide his work, hoping it will make his painting more honest and powerful. He wants his inner feelings and spirit to take over the painting process, even if the result is unexpected or chaotic.

My soul, when I paint this next portrait

The connection between the soul and accurate painting lies in the belief that genuine art comes from within. The soul represents the artist’s deepest self, including emotions, thoughts, and experiences.

When artists let their soul guide their painting, they aim to create art that’s not just technically skilled but also profoundly expressive and meaningful. Such art can communicate the artist’s unique perspective and inner life to others,

People hear about his return to painting the sea and talk about it excitedly. This shows his decision to embrace his original inspiration, the sea, and let his deepest emotions and essence show in his art.

Stanza 5

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

In this stanza, the idea is presented of a painter who is overwhelmed by what he tries to paint and so tired that he can’t even paint anymore.

He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth

This shows that the painter’s struggle or failure made other artists watching from the buildings laugh at him meanly. They found humour in his inability to capture his subject, showing a lack of support among the artists.

This situation makes some other artists, watching from nearby buildings, laugh at him. They joke that now they have no chance of painting themselves or getting the sea to pose for a picture.

This shows how challenging painting can be, especially when capturing something as vast and powerful as the sea. It also highlights a sense of community or rivalry among artists, where they observe and react to each other’s struggles and successes.

We haven’t a prayer

This phrase indicates that the artists feel they have no chance or hope of achieving their goal. It is a way of saying their task is so complex that it is as if only a miracle could help them succeed.

of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!

This part expresses the artist’s frustration with accurately capturing their essence. They find it nearly impossible to translate such complex subjects onto canvas. It illustrates the struggle between an artist’s vision and the reality of their ability to manifest it.

Stanza 6

Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally, all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

In this stanza of the poem, some people think the painting is a self-portrait, even though it becomes less clear what the subject is.

Eventually, all signs of any subject disappear, and the canvas becomes completely white. When the painter stops painting, a loud noise comes from the buildings around him.

This noise is both a cry of frustration and a hopeful wish. It shows how people react strongly when faced with the idea of a painting that ends up as a blank canvas. It might represent many things, like failure, the challenge of art, or even a new beginning.

This emotional outcry (howl) is a natural response to the struggle between the desire for creative expression and the harsh reality of artistic limitations.

Stanza 7

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

In this part of the poem, people throw the painter’s portrait from a very high building. The sea then swallows up both the painting and the brush.

This action hints at the sea’s choice. The sea was the painting’s subject, and it seems to prefer to remain as something desired, akin to a prayer. It does not become an entity that art can capture or control.

It shows the power of the sea and nature and perhaps the limits of what art can capture or represent.

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