In the first of this pair of articles looking at feet and footwear in paintings, I showed some historical and mythical works which rely on feet in telling their story. To conclude, this article presents a selection of paintings in which feet and footwear are an important part of social history.
Prior to the nineteenth century, most people lived, walked and worked barefoot, with only the richest likely to wear shoes or boots for much of their waking hours. Those more ordinary people in Europe who did use footwear were likely to wear wooden clogs, although the manufacture of leather shoes and boots expanded greatly during the century. By the twentieth century, barefoot figures in contemporary scenes were normally intended to be poor members of the working class, and a person’s footwear was a strong indicator of class, wealth and more.
Winslow Homer’s fascinating painting of The Country School, from 1871 is believed to show a country schoolroom in the Catskills, New England. In its largely empty classroom is an impossibly wide age range of children; two of the boys on the right who are reading to the teacher are too poor for shoes, although the girls on the right look much better-dressed, each with polished black leather boots.
The contrast is also notable in Geoffroy’s Whoever Breaks the Glass Pays for It in 1881. This shows a group of three young boys who have apparently broken a glass from a street café. The boy at the right is pointing down at the fragments of glass on the ground, and looking daggers at the other two; his clothing and lace-up boots are dirty and tattered. Those on the other boys are clean and more fashionable.
Other Naturalist painters let footwear and feet tell a great deal about the figures they painted.
The cheeky ploughboy in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing) from 1882 is on his way out to work in the fields. His face is grubby, his clothing frayed, patched, and dirty, and his boots caked in mud and laceless.
From the same period, Bastien-Lepage painted this portrait of The Blind Beggar from the street in the artist’s home village of Damvillers. The boy has presumably removed his right boot for comfort, and both appear to have worn out several years ago.
The younger children shown in this family living on the street, in Fernand Pelez’ Homeless from 1883, have no footwear at all, and their feet are filthy; the mother and her older daughter are wearing tatty boots, perhaps to support them in casual work, when it’s available. This painting was exhibited at the Salon in Paris that year, when those viewing it only needed to walk round the corner from the Palais des Champs-Élysées (where it was held) to see scenes like this for real.
Despite their hard labour, the rural poor were no better off. Contrast the resolution and will in the woman’s face in Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark (1884) with her bare feet, their toenails battered, grubby and bruised.
Feet take part in the grand story in Fernand Pelez’s epic Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats), which he painted in 1888. This follows the pattern of a traditional ‘ages of man’ image, in which the figures increase in stature from the start at the left edge, to the centre, then diminish again with advancing years, to the right. Look at their feet, though: they progress from ballet shoes to the fancy boots of circus performers, ending up at the right in handed-down worn-out leather boots.
In another of Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s paintings, Worn Out from 1889, footwear tells an important part of the story. An old man has collapsed when working in the fields. A younger woman, perhaps his daughter, is giving him aid and shouting for all she’s worth to summon assistance. He was wearing wooden working clogs, as a poor farm labourer would; one of them has fallen off, an indication that he’s not going to get back up in a hurry. A century later, the English phrase popping your clogs was coincidentally in general use as an idiomatic euphemism for dying.
In much of the Russian Empire, the poor wore not clogs but felted boots to keep their feet as warm as possible in the long and bitter winters. These are shown on pupils in Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s painting Mental Arithmetic. In Public School of S. A. Rachinsky from 1895, depicting a class in the village of Tatev in Smolensk province.
Antoni Piotrowski’s Homeless (Country girl at the fence) (1896) shows a young pregnant Polish woman standing barefoot by the side of a country road. Her meagre possessions are laid out around her: a pair of worn boots, a bundle of clothes, and a stick.
For those who could afford to wear fashionable clothing, outrageously impractical footwear was (and still is) a sign of their affluent disdain for working and walking.
Among Georges Clairin’s many paintings of ‘frou-frou’ is this Elegant Couple at the Coast, whose shoes certainly weren’t intended for standing on slippery rocks.
For all Marthe Bonnard’s humble origins, she developed a lasting fondness for white high-heeled shoes, which appear in many of Pierre Bonnard’s domestic scenes, including this of Marthe in the Dining Room from 1933.
Footwear has also become involved in sex and its symbolism, particularly during the twentieth century.
Egon Schiele uses bright colour to draw attention to this woman’s lips, nipples, and navel in his Crouching Woman with Green Headscarf from 1914, and further sexualises her with a pair of high-heeled boots. These are the only items of clothing she is wearing other than the headscarf.
The contrasting footwear worn by the two almost faceless women in Edgar Degas’ Waiting from about 1882 is a crucial part of his enigmatic pastel painting, and a reminder of the importance of the feet to those who dance.
My final painting is one in which dramatic foreshortening reverses the normal emphasis of figurative painting.
Hendrik Goltzius’ foreshortened projection of the Dying Adonis (1609) pushes his face and head into the distance and makes their features almost unreadable, while his feet take pride of place and you can even read their soles.
I hope that by now I have made my point: when you look at paintings, don’t forget the foot.