Theater & art

Frame by Frame

A foot, poetic in its singularity

Among the many memorable exchanges in the 1985 film “Out of Africa” is one about the poetic possibilities of the human foot. Other body parts — lips, eyes, hands, face, hair, breasts, legs, arms, and even knees all have poems celebrating their manifold virtues, says Denys Finch Hatton, the fiendishly handsome, beguilingly free-spirited character played by Robert Redford. “But not one verse for the poor foot.”

His explanation for this sorry state of affairs — “there’s nothing to rhyme it with” — doesn’t cut it with Karen Blixen, the Danish writer at whose farm Finch Hatton is an unexpected guest. (She is played, of course, by Meryl Streep).

“Put,” she offers. “It’s not a noun,” objects Finch Hatton. “Doesn’t matter,” retorts Blixen: “Along he came and he did put/ Upon my farm his clumsy foot.”

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Touché.

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Rhyming, of course, is not such a problem in art, and there are many more memorable feet in the history of art than in poetry. Among my favorites are the bare feet of the beggar girl in Manet’s “The Old Musician” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the two exposed feet of the sleeping model in Lucian Freud’s “Annabel Sleeping.”

But, of course, when feet are still connected to a human body, they do in a sense “rhyme” — if only with the foot on the other leg.

Part of what makes this 16th-century marble fragment from Italy at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum so arresting is that it doesn’t rhyme with anything. It stands on a cabinet in the soon-to-be-reinstalled Raphael Room, all alone. It is positioned on an eight-sided plinth at about head height. (That in itself is quite startling: a foot at head height? You could almost put it in your mouth, where feet most certainly don’t belong).

It is, I am trying to say, singular. It doesn’t belong to anything, or anyone. We don’t know who made it. We don’t know which body it once belonged to. The museum could tell me nothing about where it came from or how it came into the collection.

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Without doubt, it’s a very beautiful foot. Probably a child’s, possibly a woman’s. Surely not a man’s. The side visible here, in its own, quietly tantalizing way, seems to sit off the ground slightly more than it should. The little toe, meanwhile, is gorgeously bunched, like a little piggy wishing he was already all the way home.

But the rest of the foot is elegant, beautifully proportioned, splendidly naked, and tremendously proud of itself, I feel. Inviolate. It doesn’t ask to be shod, or sandaled, or otherwise made to rhyme or fit in with anything else. It’s a foot-for-foot’s sake.

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Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.