Book Review: Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook

Here’s a rare occassion in which I read a book in the year it’s published after reading this review of Timothy Brook‘s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008) in the Christian Science Monitor. This book is also my selection for April’s Book A Month Challenge on Beauty.

Brook uses eight works of art from the 17th-century (most of them by Johannes Vermeer) and uses them as doorways into the emerging global world. This book goes beyond simple art appreciation creating a James Burke’s Connections-style investigation of what is featured in the art and how it connects to the changing world of the time, especially in the Netherlands and China. It’s a fascinating and unique perspective and I recommend the book to anyone interested in art, history, and the human story.

The works of art are listed below with a synopsis of what Brook finds beyond each of these doors.

1. Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (1660/61)

Vermeer’s accurate landscape of his hometown includes the prominent headquarters of the local chamber of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compangie, or VOC). This shows that Delft has become a part of the growing commercial empire trading with the East, redefining capitalism and nationalism in the process.

2. Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658)

A familiar sight of a soldier flirting with a young woman focuses on the aspects that connect this domestic scene with foreign lands. The map on the wall shows the Netherlands as a growing maritime empire. The officer’s hat is connected to Samuel Champlain and his efforts by alliance and conquest to control the beaver pelt trade in the New World.

3. Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657)

A dish of fruit is prominent in the foreground and leads to a discussion of Chinese porcelain imported to Europe. The fine porcelain became a mark of taste and breeding in European homes. In China, the demand for porcelain created a export market for table ware used in ways different from the Chinese culture.

4.Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (1669)

The studious geographer calmly studies the growing body of knowledge of the world. At the same time a cultural exchange in 17th-century occurs between the Chinese and European merchants, missionaries, and shipwrecked sailors.

5. A Plate from the Lambert van Meerten Museum of Delft (late seventeenth century)

Delft became a center of creating European versions of Chinese porcelain complete with Chinese-style images to enhance their exotic appeal. This plate in particular includes an image of a Chinese man smoking, an image that appeals to Europeans although for cultural reasons Chinese artists would never depict someone participating in such a new trend. This chapter follows the quick spread of tobacco use across Europe and Asia, and creation of cultural traditions for smoking.

6. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (1664)

The woman is weighing silver which became prominent in trade in the 17th-century. Much of the silver was mined in the Spanish colony of Bolivia. Each year a large ship fulled of silver bullion sailed from South America to Manila where it was exchanged for silks with Chinese merchants. The growing community of Chinese traders in Manila leads to mistrust and massacres, yet the trade thrives all the same.

7. Hendrik van der Burch, The Card Players (1660)

This painting by Vermeer’s contemporary prominently features an African slave, something Vermeer never painted, but a growing reality in 17th-century Europe. This chapter focuses on journeys, ordinary people traveling to far-flung corners of the Earth, some of them to stay including Africans enslaved in the Netherlands and Dutch sailors settling in China and Korea. There’s also some good parts about pirates (or privateers depending on your perspective)!

8. Emperor Guan, the Chinese God of War, Depicted in Ivory from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

An image similar to one exhumed by a Chinese convert to Christianity and used as a standard for a Chinese insurgency against the Spanish in Manila.