From the Editor: If we only look closely …

August 10, 2011

Paula MinaertBY PAULA MINAERT — Through the painter’s brushstrokes, I am present at an outdoor market in Amsterdam, around 1675. A large woman wearing a tall black hat is seated in front of a table of vegetables she is selling: carrots, cabbage, potatoes. Another woman, a customer argues with her, hands on hips and white apron askew.

Behind them a man with a clipped beard hoists a large wooden barrel on one shoulder. To one side a man in a red suit with white ruffles at his throat and wrists leans close to the shoulder of a woman carrying a metal milk bucket. He is trying to sell her something; she looks away, not interested. In the foreground, a hen sits on the ground and a brown-and-white dog sniffs at a rooster perched on top of an empty cage.

Gabriel Metsu painted everyday life in 17th-century Holland with incredible, realistic detail. I can see the raised pattern of the rich red brocades that appear in so many of his works. I can almost feel the soft fur of the many dogs – who all look like cocker spaniels – that cluster around his subjects’ feet.

I can’t remember when I’ve noticed so many things in paintings. A woman leaning out of a window, a pot lying on the ground, a glass vial of oil hanging on a nail on a wall: This was the stuff of life for people at that time. The men and women themselves may not have paid much attention to everything that was around them, but Metsu clearly did.

I came away from that exhibit at the National Gallery of Art wondering about my attitude to the stuff of my everyday life. I do notice things that are different, like a rose that’s just bloomed when I wasn’t expecting it, or a new taste, like the yellow tomato gazpacho at Busboys and Poets (which was wonderful).

But as for what’s always there? My eyes tend to skip over those details. I categorize them (the dog lying in the doorway, my key on top of the piano) and move on. Now I do think we human beings have to be on automatic pilot to some degree; we can’t focus on everything or we’d never get anything done. But I also think I – we – miss a lot in the process.

So I’ve decided that on my walks, and in my daily encounters with people at the store or the library, I will try to focus more, to pay closer attention. Admittedly, we live in a small town, rather than a bustling seaport like Metsu did. And some of us may feel that real life is somewhere else, like at work.

But what’s in our everyday world does affect us, even the seemingly unimportant. For example, this issue talks about goings-on in the city government and in our schools. It looks at our restaurants and our writers and our history. It’s all part of our world and all grist for the mill.