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Monday, March 5, 2012

“Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World”, by Timothy Brook


288 pages, Bloomsbury Press, ISBN-13: 978-1596915992

Every once in a while, a book comes along that really surprises me with its excellence; "Vermeer's Hat" is one of those books. This book is a look into the 1600's but, as a hook, the book uses 8, 17th Century works of art by Johannes Vermeer that each tells us something about the era in which it was created. What makes the book so very interesting is that it covers events and phenomenon that are rarely discussed in other books, such the movement of goods between Europe, Spanish America and China, the spread of tobacco, and so much more.

Of course it's not really about Vermeer's hat - or Vermeer's fruit bowl or the two sturdy ships moored together at the right edge of Vermeer's "View of Delft." The subtitle gives it away: "Dawn of the Global World." That's what it's about; the other things are objects in the paintings, props or, as Brook likes to call them, the "doors" that open up in the paintings and let their confined domesticity escape into the outer world and the fresh air of innovation and discovery flow back in, rather like the window that partially frames the hat in the painting. Don't expect detailed art history from this book; Timothy Brook is not an art historian but a distinguished historian of China and Shaw Chair of Chinese Studies at Oxford University. It is as such that he approaches the material; a historian of Europe or of Western Art would have viewed the international cultural and commercial exchanges he analyzes as European exports to the global community, whereas Brook tends to view them more as imports from Europe. Finally, of course, it is interactivity that makes of globalization a two-way street, as symbolized by that open window and all the other open windows and doors in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.

So, in a sense, the book IS about Vermeer's art after all; the presence of the hat, bowl, and other "doors" in the pictures is a result of the Dutch Republic's central position in that process of globalization and indicate the source of the enormous commercial wealth that was its foundation. Without that position, Vermeer's paintings would not have been Vermeer's paintings, because his world would not have been what it was. There is not a lot of hard-core art history here, but after reading this book, we will no longer be able to look at the Frick's "Officer and Laughing Girl" naively, i.e., without knowing that the man's wonderful hat was made possible only because Samuel Champlain was just then trying to find a Northwest Passage and able to finance his explorations by sending tons of beaver pelts back to Europe. And those are not just generic "boats"; they are herring busses manufactured for herring fishing in the North Sea, moored here in Delft for refitting or repair, and thus appropriate symbols of the maritime origins of Dutch prosperity (and the fortuitous nature of all commercial prosperity) for if the most generally calamitous event of the seventeenth century, the "Little Ice Age" of 1550-1700, had not caused extensive freeze-up of the Norwegian coastline, and pushed the traditional base of the herring fishery south to Baltic waters controlled by the Dutch, that little windfall might not have developed into the financial foundation of a bourgeoisie sufficiently prosperous to afford fashionable hats and the paintings of them. The book is filled with unexpected insights and suggestions like that, and as they are quite imaginatively and indelibly presented, they should henceforth inform our viewing of these paintings. 

Above all, it took great insight and historical skill to conceive and structure this book. The result is a tour-de-force that proves the possibility of producing a book that is simultaneously scholarly and a fantastic, fast-paced read. Bravo! 

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