Orientalist Paintings

The Shoes Make the Art

By Maria Zinser

The shoe makes the outfit. Whether you don brogues or sneakers, stilettos or boots – the choice of footwear will transform your outfit from smart to casual, glamourous to cool. Shoes are no longer just an item of basic clothing, shoes make a statement and not just since Cinderella’s glass pumps, Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers or Carry Bradshaw’s obsession with Manolo Blahnik’s heeled sandals in Sex and the City. Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980, recently sold at Sotheby’s London for £1,161,000, plays on exactly that fetish, arranging four elegant ladies’ shoes in a type of still-life arrangement familiar to every woman who has resorted to trying on several pairs in a panic to match her outfit. The diamond dust embellishes this otherwise conventional, even messy arrangement with a Cinderella touch.


Orientalist works of art frequently feature shoes rather prominently, particularly in depictions of Muslim prayer, for which believers are required to take off their shoes, as seen in The Dhikr by Eugène Baugniès, sold at last year’s Orientalist sale for £100,000, or the upcoming work Evening Prayers by Eugène Girardet (estimated at £150,000-£200,000). The Cobbler by Jean Discart (estimated at £150,000-£200,000) presents at its centre a still life of babouches, traditional Moroccan slippers, of different colours, some plain, some embellished, in different states of disrepair. A tall wanderer in a voluminous cloak, a walking stick in hand, has stopped at the shop to have his right shoe repaired by a specialist. Both men are carefully focussed on the meticulous work of the cobbler, the quality of whose work the traveller will depend on for his onward journey.


Looking at the painting, one simply cannot get enough of the skilled rendering of different textures and close attention to detail becoming ever-more apparent upon closer inspection of the work. Another still life of two roses in a vase – a surprising addition to an otherwise humble street shop – decorates the cobbler’s little side table, which holds his box of specialist equipment and scissors. Discart explores this everyday situation with an emphasis on skilled craftsmanship and an eye for beauty in the ordinary, in a scene that nevertheless remained very exotic to his audience.


Babouche slippers in all their variations have been worn by men and women in North Africa and the Middle East for centuries, with the pointed-toe style even becoming fashionable at the 17th century French court. Since 2016, the babouche has been extremely en vogue again with luxury designers from Dolce & Gabbana and Yves Saint Laurent to fashionable high-end brands like Acne Studio and A.P.C. bringing them to the international catwalks. Thus, Discart’s work today also serves as a reminder of globalisation and cultural appropriation, visualising the inspiration that fashion continues to draw from traditional clothing.

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