- Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
When a brilliant scholar of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese history like Timothy Brook writes world history for the non-specialist, the result is an eclectic, spellbinding tale of Early Modern globalism. Brook attends to Holland, recalling his youthful travels there, to Canada, his native land, to Ming dynasty China, a time and place that he has previously illuminated for scholarly readers, to the Philippines, colonial East Asian entrepôt, and to places along the routes connecting them. In prose reminiscent ofMichael Ignatieff and Simon Schama, masters of popular historical writing, Brook presents a dazzling array of people and things. Choice examples (limited, so as not to deprive the reader of the considerable pleasure of this text): a Canada connected to China, from which beaver pelts circulated to seventeenth-century Holland; marvellous stories of shipwrecks (that might themselves have constituted an engrossing and readable book); a shockingly fresh reinterpretation of famous lines from a John Donne poem.
Vermeer's Hat is a clever book predicated on the premise that paintings are not windows on the world, even the globalized world of the Dutch Republic and its East India Company (VOC) chartered in 1602. In a structural move that recalls Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (Knopf, 2001), Brook uses seven paintings - five by the Delft painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), one by his Delft contemporary Hendrik van der Burch (1627-99), and one on a late seventeenth-century delftware plate - to focus seven of his eight chapters. By 'think[ing] of the objects in them not as props behind windows but as doors to open, then wewill find ourselves in passageways leading to discoveries about the seventeenth-century world that the paintings on their own don't acknowledge, and of which the artist himself was probably unaware.' Innovative, Brook's approach, namely, reading the material culture represented in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings as evidence [End Page 385] of the globalized world of Holland, resembles that pioneered by Julie Berger Hochstrasser in her doctoral dissertation 'Life and Still Life: A Cultural Inquiry into Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting' (Berkeley, 1995), now published as Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale University Press, 2007). The two books are especially enjoyable when read with, and against, each other.
Brook is new to writing popular history, and, despite the considerable strengths of Vermeer's Hat, he occasionally alienates a specialist reader like me (a huge fan of his scholarly books!). Three examples stand out. First, in his introduction, Brook attempts to explain the complexities of pictures to a non-specialist audience, using photography as a straw man; but Brook obviates specialist understanding of that medium from its inception to the present. Second, in staging his method for a non-specialist audience, Brook attributes to that audience an extraordinary lack of curiosity about the things in pictures. Of course, art historians contemplate Brook's questions; but undergraduate students and casual museum-goers also ask precisely the questions Brook assumes to be his prerogative. Without such questions, driven by a common fascination with, and curiosity about, pictures - especially Dutch seventeenth-century ones - a film like Susan Seidelman's The Dutch Master (1994), or a novel like Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (HarperCollins, 1999) would neither exist nor have traction with popular audiences. Third, Vermeer's Hat is indebted, albeit selectively, to a rich body of previously published primary scholarship of world history - including Brook's own, but not including Svetlana Alpers's The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1984), which laid the groundwork for thinking about Vermeer's paintings as Brook does. In ways almost certainly invisible to the non-specialist reader, Vermeer's Hat is implicitly responsive, if not clearly plastic, to specific, previously published works. Such synthesis of secondary literature differentiates Vermeer's Hat from other strategies of...