Ford Madox Brown depicts the numerous figures as well as the objects nearest them in Christ Washing Peter's Feet (1851-56) with a precise and not at all idealized realism. The faces of the men seated behind the table display a range of distinctive yet not caricatured features: the fifth man from the left has a broad, heavy face, the man directly to his left has a sharp nose, and the man second from the left has dark, deep-set eyes. Furthermore, their gestures and expressions have a natural, informal quality that enables their emotions to be conveyed strongly and persuasively: the man to the left of Peter wraps one arm caringly over the shoulder of the blond man beside him who leans against him; he gently places his other hand on the blond man's arm, and their postures suggest the act of one man alerting and yet also comforting another in a surprising situation. Their eyes look intently at the scene in the foreground. Another man places his hands on his head, elbows resting on the table, fingers conspicuously silhouetted against his dark hair; he too looks to the foreground with interest at the unfolding scene. The man beside him rests his mouth on his folded hands, staring at the scene, as the man at the far end of the table seems to be craning his neck to position his face at a level from which he can see the scene. By means of natural, realistic gestures and expressions from the un-idealized arc of individuals at the back of the painting, Brown helps focus the viewer's attention on the scene at hand. This method is in contrast to the traditional use of spotlighting to achieve this effect-- a technique that Brown rejects in favor of relatively even light throughout.
Equally realistic is the scene in the foreground that has sparked the interest of the observers: Christ, with a protruding chin and hair wet with sweat, kneels on the floor, drying one of Peter's feet on his apron. Christ has rolled up the arms of his robe, unevenly, to enable him to perform this task. Peter's feet and ankles glisten with water; his sandals that have been thrown carelessly aside appear dirty and scoffed. One of the men at the table behind Christ and Peter seems to be readying himself for his turn to be bathed by untying his sandals. The one clearly unrealistic element of this painting is the yellow halo behind Christ's head.
1. One of the struggles of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers was to find symbols that would be applicable and understandable to 19th-century society, rather than reusing outdated iconography. Aside from the halo in this painting, Brown does not follow many archaic iconographic traditions, so what might have inspired him to insert the halo?
2. In addition to his comparatively even application of light, his disregard of the standard pyramidal composition, and his refusal to idealize figures, what other Academy rules does Brown break in this painting? Does he nonetheless accomplish the task of focusing the viewer's attention on the action of the scene? What aspects of traditional religious painting does he follow?
3. Brown chose to highlight Christ's back and head against the white tablecloth and yellow halo, and to set his other figures against a dark background. Why then, is the central action of this painting -- Christ's physical interaction with Peter's foot -- one of the least clearly highlighted images in the scene?
Last modified 14 September 2004