Empathy Is the Lifeblood of Creativity. Here’s How Artists From Delacroix to Mickalene Thomas Have Channeled It in Their Work

Read an excerpt from the new book 'How Creativity Rules the World.'

Maria Brito.

Empathy is the key to thinking differently, a cornerstone of creativity in entrepreneurship and elsewhere. Fostering diversity in companies, teams, and partnerships and developing multiangle perspectives is essential to creativity, and it all starts with empathy.

We cannot feel exactly how another person feels, but we can try as much as possible to be on their wavelength and imagine what they might be experiencing. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. If authenticity is a habit nurtured from the inside out, empathy begs us to take the outside in.

It’s almost unfeasible to be creative and innovative without experiencing a good amount of empathy. Art is one of the mediums of communication that most evokes it. We love to watch movies and TV shows that take us into other worlds and let us experience someone else’s inner perspective. Long before movies and TV, artists and writers did the same—with storytelling that spoke to our emotions. They invited us, through their creativity, to explore other points of view and outlooks.

Insurrection and Innovation

The French monarchy wasn’t particularly empathic. Throughout their reign, they never seemed to get it. By not listening to, connecting with, or understanding their own people, they ultimately lost the throne, their riches, their palaces, and even their heads. Between 1792 and 1848, the French witnessed three revolutions and profound changes in their sociopolitical structure and experienced long periods of severe social unrest. Into this France the painter Eugène Delacroix was born. This is where he developed his career during the last years of the Age of Enlightenment.

Delacroix was one of the originators of a new artistic era, Romanticism, which responded to political upheaval by rebelling against the establishment. Like all Romantics, Delacroix, who became the leader of that movement, emphasized the emotions of his subjects, including their terror and awe. He rejected the calm compositions of his neoclassical predecessors, favoring chaos, movement, and color to convey feeling. His canvases, some of which were as big as thirteen feet tall and almost seventeen feet wide, provided his viewers with a realistic and dramatic feel for the events they depicted.

Eugène Delacroix, July 28, Liberty Leading the People (1830). Courtesy of the Louvre.

Out of Chaos: An Empathic Masterpiece

Understanding the emotions of others certainly inspired Delacroix. When he was thirty-two, he painted one of the world’s most recognizable pictures, Liberty Leading the People. As a painter and gifted artist, Delacroix straddled two worlds. One was the world of ordinary people. He felt a kinship with craftsmen and factory workers who used their hands to make things. On the other side, he forged connections with the intellectual elite who commissioned his paintings and supported his work.

By 1830, the French were once again fed up with their monarch. Charles X, another tone-deaf king, imposed more taxes, repressed election laws, and violated the new constitution’s provision for freedom of religion by restoring the established church. The French were not having it, and after three days of fighting on the streets of Paris, on July 29, 1839, Charles X was deposed. Delacroix watched these events unfold. He saw people fighting and dying. He saw the insurgents building barricades. He saw them raise the French flag in front of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, a scene that deeply stirred him and stayed vivid in his mind.

Although he had not carried guns or stones or mounted the barricades, he was fully aware of the social and political realities of France. He had witnessed, firsthand, the pain and suffering of his compatriots, and a couple of months after the July Revolution, Delacroix began painting what would become his masterpiece. In October 1830, he wrote his brother, “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her.”

Rather than highlighting the idea of victory and freedom, he focused on the uniqueness and diversity of the people. He gave each of the subjects in this painting their own characteristics. He wanted contemporary viewers to believe that they could all be revolutionaries and that everyone in France contributed to bringing forth much-longed-for change.

The revolutionaries in Liberty Leading the People represented many social classes and backgrounds. There was a young student holding a pistol in each hand, wearing a black velvet beret, with a cartridge pouch crossing his body. The expression on his face conveys the adrenaline rush of the moment. He is shouting for freedom.

A factory worker sports a white shirt and an apron while wielding a sable. A bourgeois young man wearing a tailored black coat, top hat, vest, and cravat around his neck is armed with a hunting shotgun. Another boy, or gamin, from the street, probably an orphan, is crouching, holding a stone in one hand and a spade in the other, his head covered with a green bonnet that was associated with Napoleon’s army.

Intellectuals, street kids, and working-class people all became rebels, guided by an allegorical figure, “Liberty.” She is half nude, her round breasts exposed; her right arm, waving the French flag, is muscular and strong; the left holds a bayonet; her yellow dress is stained.

Delacroix made her alive, assertive, and relatable. She’s not flying above, she’s not a supernatural goddess, she’s in the middle of the action, getting down and dirty with the insurgents. Far in the background, amid clouds of smoke, he painted the towers of Notre-Dame completing the scene he had witnessed just months before.

When Delacroix first exhibited Liberty at the Paris Salon (back then, the greatest annual art event in the Western world) in 1831, it drew huge crowds. Its portrayal of rebellion in all levels of society helped the French bond and empathize with each other regardless of their social status. It reminded them of what united their country—not politicians, not an isolated group of privileged people, but the people as a whole.

Even with his superb skills, it would have been nearly impossible for Delacroix to make a painting of this significance, one that has moved and inspired so many generations, had it not been because of his empathetic and inclusive point of view. Liberty Leading the People became, and continues to be, the symbol of France. It inspired Victor Hugo’s most celebrated novel, Les Misérables (1862), the musical (1980), and all the films that followed it. It also inspired the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who con- ceived and designed the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the people of the United States paid for by the French people.

The cover of Maria Brito’s new book, with cover art by Allison Zuckerman.

Empathy, Integrity, and Trust

One of the most empathetic artists I ever met was the late Puerto Rican Arnaldo Roche Rabell, the first Latino to graduate with both a BFA and an MFA from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the neo-expressionist movement. Roche Rabell was the embodiment of this movement whose members wanted to rehumanize the subjects in art. It started in the late 1970s with young artists who decided to portray the human body and other recognizable objects, in reaction to the highly intellectualized abstract art production of the 1950s and 1960s. I had heard so much about Roche Rabell before I finally met him in the summer of 2014. While I was on a business trip to Puerto Rico, his gallerist took me to visit him in his studio outside of San Juan. Arnaldo was waiting to show me how he worked. His excitement for life was palpable. From the moment I entered his airy and enormous warehouse studio, I felt his sincere desire to make me feel at home.

His methods were not only creative, but you could also feel the empathy he had for his subjects. Part of that came from his technique, known as “frottage.” He placed a naked person directly under a canvas, wet from layers of oil paint, and then carefully rubbed it over the person’s body with a spatula, revealing the contours, marks, and particularities of that body. Each of his models had to spend between three and five hours draped under the canvas. He was deeply concerned about how they felt during the process and sought ways to make the experience more comfortable for them.

I realized that one of the ways he built empathy with his subjects was by asking many questions about their lives. He was genuinely interested in getting to know people and wanted to connect with them. That is a simple but often overlooked cornerstone of empathy: getting to understand who your customers or audience are.

In an interview that Roche Rabell gave to Visión Doble, a literary magazine published by the University of Puerto Rico, he said, “I was interested in seeing how close I could get to people, their possessions, and their fears, but this also required their consent. That is why empathy became a tool for closeness. Not necessarily on a level that only shows the occurrence of empathy, but empathy defined as a direct connection with another person. In other words, it becomes a performance in which I persuade you to have faith in me and where I’m going to treat you in the most respectful way, and that I will never mock you or what is important to you. Those are the defining boundaries of Arnaldo Roche’s painterly experience.”

After explaining how he made his paintings, he told me, “For me, being empathetic is as important or more than all the tools I have in my studio; I couldn’t do what I do without empathy.” His was a unique type of empathy, something like intimacy with work ethic and integrity. Part of Arnaldo’s success came from intently looking for and connecting with other people’s physical and psychological worlds, until he could make them visible in his art.

To help me understand how he did it, he gently invited me to sit in a chair. He dragged a small table and another chair over, and sat directly across from me. He placed my hands under a piece of paper and rubbed over them using blue oil sticks. He then took a delicate piece of lace, and rubbed it over with the paper on top of it. The result was the most beautiful composition around my hands. We were so close to each other, but he was so respectful that I never felt weird or uncomfortable while he worked on my hands. Arnaldo’s gallerist framed the piece, and I have it in my bedroom close to me. When I look at it, I remember Arnaldo’s wise words: “I couldn’t do what I do without empathy.”

Mickalene Thomas in front of her work at the Armory Show in 2008. ©Patrick McMullan.

Opening Other Worlds

As a Latina, I have always had empathy for minorities. Since I opened my company in 2009, I have made it a goal to support Black artists, recommending them to my clients, acquiring them for myself, writing about them, incorporating them in my media projects, and including their works in exhibitions that I have curated. I’m always lured by their wonderful use of saturated palettes, the portrayal of beautiful dark-skinned figures, their trials, tribulations, and triumphs, the narratives of challenge and hope, the stories in their work appealing to my emotions. This was long before most blue-chip galleries realized Black artists’ importance, and a decade later, they would go crazy courting them, hoping to add them to their stable of representation.

When I visited the studio of Mickalene Thomas for the first time, a Brooklyn-based mega-celebrated multimedia Black artist, I cried. One side of her expansive studio represented all her success. She had studio managers, production managers, assistants, and many other people working with her. Lined up against some of the walls were extremely organized shelves with tubes, cans, and gallons of paint, brushes of all sizes and types of hair, and containers that held, by color and shades, the millions of Swarovski rhinestones she typically uses in her paintings. On the other side, she had re-created part of her incredible living room installations, the ones that she is so well known for and have been exhibited in museums all over the world, from the Art Gallery of Ontario to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. These installations were inspired by Mickalene’s own childhood home in Hillside and East Orange, New Jersey, the armchairs upholstered with kaleidoscopic patchworks of vintage and African textiles, the walls covered in faux-wood panels adorned with the photographs she took of her late mother, the vinyl records in one corner. Everything was evocative of the 1970s post–Civil Rights Act era, when Black men and women owned and embraced their style and composed and performed some of the best hits of disco music, and the Bronx gave birth to hip-hop. I felt such an intense energy when I sat in one of those armchairs; it was as if I had gone back in time to Mickalene’s childhood living room. In a flash of a moment, I felt her throes, courage, perseverance, and ultimately her victory, and I couldn’t hold the tears that streamed down my face.

Black artists and Black art are profound invitations to develop empathy. They give us a view that shows us the struggles of Black Americans. There is so much to gain in perspective if you are empathetic, curious, and receptive and if you allow the worlds of people different from you to inform yours.


Taken from How Creativity Rules the World by Maria Brito. Copyright © 2022 by Maria Brito. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.

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