The Aesthetic of the Ordinary

Capturing lived experience.

by James Harrington | August 4, 2015

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has revealed one of its hidden treasures, Boatmen of Barcelona (1886) by Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer, now hanging in a gallery devoted to salon painting, part of the museum’s department of European paintings. According to the museum’s label copy: “Baixeras trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in his native Barcelona and made his international debut with this painting, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1886. It was purchased there by the New York banker, railroad magnate, and art collector George I. Seney, an early supporter of the Metropolitan Museum.” Seney gave the painting to the Met that same year. It seems to have languished for decades in storage before making its truly wonderful reappearance last fall.

aesthetic of the ordinary
Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer, Boatmen of Barcelona, 1886.
Oil on canvas, 59 x 83 in. Gift of George I. Seney, 1886. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though Boatman of Barcelona is beautifully painted, it is not conventionally beautiful, even while being very compelling. But why is a subject that is so ordinary so difficult to overlook? The saccharine artifice of the paintings by Pierre-Auguste Cot[1] that hang adjacent to it make for a strange contrast. Most of the nearby paintings’ subjects peer out at their viewers, one might say, expecting some attention. These ordinary boatmen, absorbed in their own world, unconscious of any spectator, are so striking that they dominate everything nearby. Why? What draws us to the aesthetic of the ordinary?

The painting’s scale is impressive, 59 x 83 inches. That size combined with its composition—the beam of the boat extends across the entire width of the canvas— makes the viewer feel like he is in the stern, observing the three men in the bow of the small boat. You are in that boat. The three sailors are backlit with the harbor behind them. Some ships are at anchor, and you can see the far shore faintly in the distance. The light shimmers hazily behind them on the water out of the glare of an overcast sky. Two men sit opposite each other against the gunwales, port, and starboard. One of them is in profile, listening while he lights his pipe, as the man opposite him with his back to us counts off something on his fingers as he talks to a third man between them in the bow. The man in the bow faces us with a look of intense concentration as he listens to what the other man is saying.

Baixeras’s Boatmen is an example of an image that reveals rather than enchants. It is sort of an exposure, a compelling look at a paradoxically public privacy, like the subway portrait.

It is an interesting painting to contemplate after leaving the current Sargent show[2] hanging nearby. Sargent’s brilliant technique can make the most mundane subjects beautiful. His color and the dance of his brushstrokes make anything he touches a sensual treat. Baixeras is far more restrained in his handling of the boatman. His palette is limited, though his brush clearly understands the beauty of the calligraphic paint stroke. The far shore and the boats in the background are painted in a style reminiscent of a Whistler nocturne. The masts and the yardarms are painted in single confident strokes. The background betrays the influence of the Impressionists, but the foreground is solidly rooted in the Realists of the previous generation. Baixeras doesn’t seem to want his brushwork to compete with his subject. I am a fervent admirer of Sargent, but his brushwork is often as much the subject as his sitter. Baixeras is all about restraint in a way that is completely in tune with the character of his subjects. Their earthy dignity would be undermined by pretty colors and dazzling brushwork. His compatriot Sorolla paints similar subjects, but with far less moderation. Sorolla’s fishermen, using oxen to pull their boats from the sea as the sun sets behind, are painted with such rich color and inspired brushwork that the fisherman themselves are somewhat subordinated as individuals. Baixeras’s visual economizing lets us focus on the people we are observing. These boatmen are such convincing individuals that you really feel you are encountering them in the flesh. Even the man with his back to us lives through the gesture of his hands and the plaid pattern of his well-worn shirt. Baixeras is not competing with the camera for detail, he is painterly, but with an aesthetic that is unique to the realists.

aesthetic of the ordinary
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Moonlight, Strandgade 30, 1900–1906.
Oil on canvas, 16 1/8 x 20 1/8 in. Purchase, European Paintings Funds, and Annette de la Renta Gift, 2012.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This aesthetic is not easy to describe. The Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth-century and the Realists of the 1850s certainly understood it. Look at Hammershoi’s interiors, and you can grasp it. It’s a similar aesthetic to the documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange[3] or Helen Levitt[4]. It’s the same aesthetic that drives me to paint people on the subway again and again. It’s not about creating the combination of the elements that constitute the visually beautifully or appealing. It’s about capturing the lived experience. The recognition generated by portraying the ordinary resonates with our own lives, even when our lives are quite different. We recognize the real. Baixeras’s Boatmen is an example of an image that reveals rather than enchants. It is sort of an exposure, a compelling look at a paradoxically public privacy, like the subway portrait. It’s not boring at all. This is the aesthetic of the ordinary, the desire to capture something small, fleeting, or overlooked, that reveals something larger, intangible and significant.

Undeniably, without the artist’s eye to recognize and make choices, there would never be an audience. These images are all carefully selected, composed and manipulated through a medium. The respect for the real is the source of Baixeras’s aesthetic, a respect for the dignity and integrity of the subject, for what is. Though not everything ordinary is worthy of attention. It is the artist’s choices that can make an image transcendent.

It’s not a happy painting, nor is it particularly sad. It’s just a moment of life among an infinite number of moments that slip past us, and perhaps these moments deserve a little more of our attention because those moments are our lives. In that sense, the Boatmen of Barcelona is quite beautiful. I am happy that I have the refreshing beauty of Sargent and Sorolla to look at, but there is something affirming in the pure portrayal of the quotidian.

James Harrington[5] is a teacher and painter living in Queens, NY.

  1. Pierre-Auguste Cot:
  2. Sargent show:
  3. Dorothea Lange:
  4. Helen Levitt:
  5. James Harrington: