The origin of empathy in art

It is often reported in the empathy literature that the idea originated as the German Einfuhlung, meaning ‘feeling into’, and attributed to Theodor Lipps.  From Morrell’s book ‘Empathy and democracy’, I learnt that Einfuhlung was coined by Robert Vischer in his dissertation ‘On the Optical Sense of Form’ in 1872. Vischer was interested in how objects could become carriers of emotions, as they do in dreams. “Thus I project my own life into the lifeless form, just as I quite justifiably do with another living person.”

The Italian artist Giorgio Morandi painted many still lives with bottles and boxes and jugs. They are beautiful just as that, but their deeper resonance comes from Einfuhlung, the projection of emotion and meaning into the grouped forms by the viewer.

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