Poor beggars are often depicted to underscore the virtue of generosity and serve to set bounteous givers in the limelight. Beggars proved to be a highly rewarding subject for painters, draughtsmen and sculptors. The artists could portray various emotions by introducing dramatic gestures and facial expressions, and lavish attention on rendering a variety of textures and materials. In contrast to a beggar, a rich man is an exemplum of loftiness and pride.
The portrayal of beggars in art differs from period to period. While in the 17th century they are sometimes presented as caricatures – for example in Hendrik Avercamp’s densely populated paintings – in 19th-century art they often serve to denounce social injustice. Ranging from medieval Bible scenes and Brueghel’s crippled beggars to etchings by Rembrandt and 19th-century genre paintings of beggars at the door, the subject of begging is timeless and universal.