Reading visual art: 22 Feet

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Dying Adonis (1609), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 76.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article in this series, I looked at the reading of footwear. This sequel bares all and looks at feet.

Feet, and their care, play a significant and visual part in Christian teaching, when Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples at the start of the Passion.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet (1548-49) (E&I 47), oil on canvas, 210 x 533 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This is shown in Tintoretto’s large Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, 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 depicted in a flash-forward 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. Elsewhere, disciples are seen pulling one another’s boots off, and a hound sits alert in the centre foreground. Tintoretto opted for a style of high leather boot which might have been worn when riding during the colder months in northern Italy.

In the post-classical world, particularly in northern Europe, bare feet became a sign of poverty.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), The Young Beggar (c 1645), oil on canvas, 134 x 100 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is one of the earliest artists to have paid particular attention to vagrants and the homeless. The Young Beggar, painted by him in about 1645, shows a young boy squatting in a tiny bare nook in a building. By his filthy feet is a bag full of rotting fruit, and some sort of worms, which apparently form his diet. His clothes are made of poor cloth, dull browns and greys, and have worn bare, torn and frayed.

Jules Breton (1827–1906), Song of the Lark (1884), oil on canvas, 110.6 × 85.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Contrast the resolution and will in this woman’s face in Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark (1884) with her bare feet, their toenails battered, grubby and bruised.

Antoni Piotrowski (1853–1924), Homeless (Country girl at the fence) (1896), oil on canvas, 110.5 × 150.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Antoni Piotrowski’s Homeless (Country girl at the fence) (1896) shows a pregnant young 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.

Sometimes bare feet can be both surprising and decisive in reading a painting.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Sirens (1875), tempera on canvas, 46 × 31 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

In Arnold Böcklin’s depiction of Sirens from 1875, their brightly coloured birdlike feet are more of a shock than the three human skulls, and confirm that the two figures may look like women down to the waist, but they’re every inch a siren.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857–1942), While Reading the Newspaper News (1912), oil on canvas, 61 x 85 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The man seated in the middle of Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s While Reading the Newspaper News from 1912 has only one shoe: his right lower leg has been replaced with a crude wooden prosthesis, a ‘peg leg’.

In other paintings, bare feet are contrasted with those bearing footwear.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Blind Beggar (date not known), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai, Tournai, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

In Jules Bastien-Lepage’s portrait of The Blind Beggar, from a street in the artist’s home village of Damvillers, this boy has presumably removed his right boot for comfort, and both boots appear to have worn out several years ago.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Homeless (1883), oil on canvas, 77.5 x 136 cm, location not known. Image by Bastenbas, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 to see scenes like this for real.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), The Country School (A Country School-room in the Catskills, New England Country School) (1871), oil on canvas, 54 × 97.2 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

My final painting is one in which dramatic foreshortening reverses the normal emphasis of figurative painting.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Dying Adonis (1609), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 76.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

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.