Rembrandt: The Art of Empathy

Rembrandt’s paintings draw you into the joys and struggles of his subjects 
July 31, 2019 Updated: July 31, 2019

NEW YORK—I recently visited The Metropolitan Museum’s ongoing exhibition “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces.”  As I was just about to leave, a  woman grabbed my attention. 

She is a deity, in fact. Her name is “Flora,” Rembrandt’s painting of the Roman goddess of spring. What struck me most was her soft, understated elegance and aura, which literally froze me 20 feet away.

Rembrandt's Flora
The warmth of this painting captivated me. “Flora,” circa 1654, by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 inches by 36 1/8 inches. Gift of Archer M. Huntington, in memory of his father, Collis Potter Huntington, 1926. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

She doesn’t look forward at the viewer. She looks to her right, gazing at eye level with an inviting kindness. Her caring spirit is relatable and personal. It’s a depiction of divinity so touching and familiar that she feels like a family member, or even a spouse. In fact, art historians believe Flora was based on a portrait of Rembrandt’s deceased wife, Saskia. 

Flora offers flowers in her hand, symbolic of the spring’s bountiful blessing. Since she’s turned to her side, not offering the harvest gift directly to you, she exudes modesty. Her blessing seems indirect and subtle, as if she’s saying, I’m here when you need me.

“[Rembrandt] wasn’t making women look like Greco-Roman statues that had come to life,” Adam Eaker said in a phone interview. Eaker is the exhibition curator and assistant curator in the department of European paintings at The Met. That break from idealism “was one of the most revolutionary qualities of Rembrandt,” he said.

While Flora’s poise is effortless and natural, her appearance isn’t perfect. She has slight bags under her eyes, a double chin, and looks fairly common. Like a lady of the day, she wears a billowy blouse, hat, and some jewelry. 

Rembrandt’s contemporaries criticized his “lack of flattery, [and] very unsparing realism,” Eaker says in the exhibition’s audio guide.

He elaborates in the audio presentation: “In his own day, [Rembrandt] certainly was not universally acknowledged to be the best. By the time he dies, he had gone bankrupt. He’d really fallen out of favor … People were outraged by this lack of idealism, the roughness of the paintings.”

But Flora’s spirit is timeless, and her gentility wraps you in tranquility. Paradoxically, Rembrandt vividly conveys his subjects’ inner worlds by realistically depicting their outer ones. 

Emerging From Mud

In “Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse,” Rembrandt painted a fellow artist, disfigured with disease. 

“De Lairesse—his appearance reveals his condition, particularly in the degradation of his nose, also his sunken eyes,” Eaker says in the audio guide. The illness would eventually cause blindness, forcing de Lairesse to shift professions from painter to writer. Though he had previously been a fan of Rembrandt, after the painfully realistic portrait, de Lairesse described Rembrandt’s work as “liquid mud on the canvas.” 

Rembrandt's Gerard de Lairesse
“Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse,” 1665–67, by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 44 3/8 inches by 34 1/2 inches. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“We can sympathize with de Lairesse, [since] many of us would not want to have a completely realistic depiction of our own physical flaws,” Eaker says in the audio guide. 

Rembrandt’s depictions could be described as unapologetic, yet they aren’t harsh or mean-spirited. There’s often a matter-of-factness to his works; he’s not demeaning subjects, but he is trying to transmit what he sees. In the case of “Gerard de Lairesse,” you can see a slight embarrassment, sadness, or even insecurity from the sitter.

Rembrandt has shown mastery of communicating his subject’s vulnerability. He illustrates imperfection and pain, which in turn evokes the viewer’s empathy. It’s impossible to stand as a judge of de Lairesse and his sickness, because Rembrandt draws you intimately into the subject’s raw emotional truth. 

Respect and Admiration

Rembrandt’s “Herman Doomer” illustrates a unique handsomeness, not in the subject’s physical attractiveness but in his grounded, wise presence. Herman Doomer was a luxury cabinetmaker, specializing in imported ebony pieces fashionable in 17th-century Amsterdam. His son apprenticed under Rembrandt. 

Herman Doomer portrait by Rembrandt
“Herman Doomer,” 1640, by Rembrandt van Rijn). Oil on wood, 29 5/8 inches by 21 3/4 inches. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is Rembrandt’s most detailed, realistic painting in the exhibition, almost photograph-like. But unlike a cold photograph, made by machine not hand, Rembrandt imbues Doomer with warmth. 

“It seems that there was a real degree of respect on Rembrandt’s part for this fellow craftsman and fellow artisan. You see that in just how wonderfully the picture is painted,” Eaker said to me. This work was the single most expensive Dutch painting ever sold in the 19th century. “When it was given to The Met, it was a real coup for us in building our collection.”

Rembrandt unabashedly shows Doomer’s age with fine wrinkles around his eyes and in his face, like road maps of years spent toiling away, refining his craft as a furniture maker. Those facial imprints are accentuated with a mere suggestion of a smile, as Doomer emanates warmheartedness.

“It just shows you everything you would want in a Rembrandt portrait,” Eaker said. “So, the exquisite painting of the rough, the realistic conveying of this man’s middle-aged appearance, and then you also have a real sense of his character, his intelligence.”

J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.

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