In the first of these two articles, I showed some examples of the significance of bare feet in paintings, concluding with a couple from the late nineteenth century, when they had become a stigma of poverty. As social realism became more popular and evolved into Naturalism, and paintings of the poor were exhibited at the Salon, bare feet became considerably more frequent.
The more hostile environment of city streets made bare feet a sign of utter destitution among those who lived in the growing urban areas, but they remained common in the rural poor, particularly among children, whose growing feet outstripped even secondhand supplies. There’s also much to be gained from the condition of the feet which we’re shown.
Jules Breton’s Young Woman Spinning (1872) shows his subject in the midst of a spinning daydream, gazing far into the distance while her hands watch the distaff (at her left hand) and drop spindle (below her right hand). While her feet aren’t exactly clean, their nails are realistically unkempt, and could do with a good pedicure.
Breton painted A Fisherman’s Daughter (1878) at Port-Rhu near Douarnenez, in Brittany. It shows a young woman mending or making fishing net for her father, a traditional task for the women who supported seagoing men. She wears local working dress, with a white cornette over a red headband, fawn bodice, and purple kerchief on her chest, and goes barefoot.
Among soldiers and labourers, lack of footwear was far more serious.
In the early 1880s, the anti-Republican artist Charles-Alexandre Coëssin de la Fosse painted several scenes from the civil war north of the River Loire, among which is this Episode of Chouannerie from 1883. These irregular peasant volunteers are clearly Royalists, as shown in their improvised arms, dress, and the fact that three of them can’t even muster a decent pair of boots.
In Constantin Meunier’s Return from the Mine, two male miners stride back to their cottages after completing their shift underground. With them is a young woman, employed to perform supporting tasks, who is walking barefoot and holding up her wooden working clogs.
Alfred Philippe Roll’s Miners’ Strike, exhibited in the Salon of 1880 (or perhaps the following year), is most probably based on a strike at Denain in the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield of that year, and may have been a model for Émile Zola’s novel Germinal. It shows the desperate and increasingly worrying gathering of striking miners and their families, as a woman is restraining one man from throwing a rock at the pithead buildings. Most of those present are barefoot, emphasising their abject poverty.
The young woman in Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark (1884) might be singing heartily, but her bare feet tell of her poverty, being grubby and bruised, with battered toenails.
The two children in Marianne Stokes’ Homeless (On the Way to the Fields) from 1885 may be incredibly clean and well-groomed, but they too are both walking barefoot.
Most of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s barefoot women were academic nudes, but his Goose Girl from 1891 is different. She stands barefoot but otherwise fully dressed, her stick tucked under her left arm like a sergeant-major’s swagger stick, her head turned to look directly at the viewer.
Lack of footwear was a feature which often distinguished those of unfamiliar cultures. Teodor Axentowicz’s painting of folk dancers from 1895 shows several of them barefoot.
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 bundle of clothes, a stick, and a pair of worn-out winter boots.
The last of this series of paintings of the poor is from the years after the First World War. Here the Norwegian artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s Streetboy from 1918-22 shows a barefoot and homeless boy asleep on some packing cases in the docks.
Poverty isn’t the sole reason for the feet being bare.
Like the older Jules Breton, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret became fascinated by the extensive religious pilgrimages known as pardons. His first painting showing those attending a pardon was completed in 1886, as The Pardon in Brittany. This shows men and women of all ages walking barefoot, holding lighted candles.
Another exception are some strange paintings about death by the Polish master Jacek Malczewski.
The Death of Ellenai (1906-07) is the second painting which Malczewski made of this theme drawn from the 1837 prose poem Anhelli by the Romantic writer Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849). Anhelli is a Polish youth, and Ellenai his companion in misery as they travel through the wastes of Siberia. A young man is kissing her feet, as her body lies on hay with dead game hanging to the right.
A couple of years later, Malczewski depicted others paying similar tribute in The Artist’s Death (1909). The figure on the left is presumably Thanatos, as she is holding a scythe with her left hand. This appears to be set in the artist’s studio.
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.
Just as gloved hands in a painting should make you stop and ask why, bare feet usually merit an explanation which could alter its reading.