Most figures in paintings have their faces and hands uncovered and exposed, as I showed in my recent article about handwear. Standard practice at the other end of the body is the opposite: unless the figure is a classical nude, most feet are covered, or at least clad in a sandal. This weekend I look at the converse, in which figures go barefoot.
For much of the history of humans, particularly in warmer climes and seasons, ordinary people have walked everywhere on their bare feet. The most common exceptions to the practice of walking barefoot before the nineteenth century were the gods, and rich and powerful mortals. As our ancestors populated increasingly hostile cold and wet lands, so simple mechanical protection to the sole of the foot in the form of a sandal has developed into shoes and boots.
When bare feet were most common, those who were sufficiently divine wore sandals. Notable among those, as seen in this detail from Botticelli’s Primavera (c 1482), is Mercury. As Messenger of the Gods, he is distinguished by his staff or caduceus and special sandal-boots, often shown winged.
This extended to senior Romans and their army. Lionel Royer’s painting of Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar from 1899 shows an interesting array of footwear from the Roman Empire. Caesar wears sandals (without wings), and Vercingetorix some sort of riding boot. But the other barbarians are shown barefoot, compared against Roman soldiers who have combat sandals.
Very occasionally a foot which would be expected to be bare turns up dressed. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of the rich and successful courtesan Phryné before the Areopagus (1861), she stands almost naked before the court trying her for the serious crime of impiety. Look carefully at her feet, though: as the detail below reveals, she’s wearing sandals too.
In Christian religious paintings, bare feet have particular significance, as Christ’s feet were bare and nailed through when he was crucified.
These are distinctive features of paintings such as Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565) in the Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, shown in the above detail.
While we’re on the subject of death, another time it’s common to show naked feet is when their owner is dead.
Enrique Simonet’s unusual Autopsy or Anatomy of the Heart; She had a Heart! from 1890 is an example. The body shown is that of a young woman who had drowned herself.
Feet can also appear as a body-part to represent the whole.
Gustave Moreau’s painting of the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx from 1864 shows some of the remains of her victims, including a solitary foot, begging the question of what happened to its partner.
Even when afforded the minimal protection of a sandal or wooden clog, feet need regular care. This has become incorporated into Christian religious art, when Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples at the start of the Passion.
This is shown in Tintoretto’s large Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet which he painted for the Scuola di San Marcuola in Venice in 1548-49. The disciples are gathered in a palatial room, around a large refectory table which looks appropriate for the Last Supper, an event which appears to be depicted in a painting hanging on the wall. In the right foreground, Jesus Christ is washing the feet of those disciples one by one, with them standing in turn in a shallow wooden tub.
The bathing of feet provided Rembrandt with the scene for his famous painting of Bathsheba with King David’s Letter from 1654. Here Bathsheba considers the king’s invitation to adultery while her maid dries her feet.
By the nineteenth century, footwear had become so prevalent that its absence was a conspicuous sign of extreme poverty.
Even the Irish ‘navvies’ shown in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1863) wear boots, but two pairs of bare feet are visible: those of the poor flower-seller at the lower left corner, and the young girl to the left of the poor woman in the foreground, wearing a torn red dress.
When the great French illustrator and painter Gustave Doré visited London, he was shocked by its large population of vagrants and homeless. His print of A Couple and Two Children Sleeping on a London Bridge (1871) is one of several objective records which he made at the time, and shows shoes on just one of the four pairs of feet.
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 left 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.
This is a detail to be further developed during the rest of the century.