Vermeer's Hat

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Vermeer's Hat
Vermeer's Hat.jpg
The front cover of Vermeer's Hat.
Author Timothy Brook
Country London, England
Publisher Bloomsbury Press, Profile Books
Publication date
26 December 2007, 16 July 2009
Media typePrint (Hardback, Paperback)
Pages288 pp.
ISBN 1-59691-444-0 (hardback),
ISBN   1-84668-120-0 (paperback)

Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is a book by the Canadian historian Professor Timothy Brook, in which he explores the roots of world trade in the 17th century through six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. [1] It focuses especially on growing ties between Europe and the rest of the world and the impact of China on the world, during what Brook sees as an "age of innovation" and improvisation. [2]



Brook argues that globalization, which is often taken to be a modern (i.e. late-20th/21st-century) phenomenon, actually had its roots in the 17th century; [3] and he states that it was his intention to surprise his readers with this information, that "people and goods and ideas were moving around the world in ways that their ancestors had no idea was possible." [2] The growth in trade and exploration was facilitated in part by advances in navigation and in shipbuilding technology and also, according to the author, was driven along when European nations such as "England, the Netherlands and France started to fight their way into the trade." [2]

By studying and analyzing the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, beginning with his landscape View of Delft , and examining the scant documents detailing his life, the author builds up a picture of the world in which Vermeer lived; and from this he finds evidence of socioeconomic phenomena and globalization. [2] In the case of the port in Delft in the Netherlands, for example, he finds evidence of the Dutch East India Company's operations. This is often said to be the world's first multinational corporation, [4] which competing traders were forced to join; it had quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies, [5] and played a powerful and prominent role in trade between the Dutch and Asia, including China. [2]

The painting entitled Officer and Laughing Girl , which is shown on the front cover of the book and to which the title alludes, speaks to Brook of the interest people had in the world, which is reflected in the maps of the world frequently seen on walls in paintings, [2] showing a patriotic pride which went along with the emergence of the Netherlands from Spanish occupation, and the painting is also used to examine trade between Europe and North America. [2] The huge felt hat itself, Brook says, is made of beaver under-fur and the origin of that would be via French traders operating in North America. [2] This being before the discovery of the Northwest Passage, the French had been commissioned to find a route to China, and the beaver fur simply helped them "cover their costs." [2] From here, the narrative goes on to talk of other commodities which were available in abundance and traded in the Americas, such as sugar, tobacco, copper, wood in the 18th century, slaves from Africa, and the metallic artefacts and guns which were given in exchange. [2]

In the painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window , there is a large Chinese porcelain bowl in the foreground (standing on a Turkish carpet), and Brook uses this to introduce the subject of trade with China. [2] Chinese porcelain was just becoming more widely available and featured in many paintings. The porcelain grew very popular in households in Vermeer's time as its price came down and it became affordable to less wealthy families. [2] In sharp contrast to the necessary outward-looking gaze of countries in Europe, the stereotypical view of China was that it had "an adequate resource base for most of its needs, an advanced technology and was not having to look outside of itself for things that it needed." [2] However, Brook maintains that the Chinese did venture out of their country to trade during lengthy periods when they were not prohibited from doing so (due to perceived threats to Chinese authority or to Chinese people), and that the Chinese simply wanted to control the terms of their trade. [2] They did not want traders setting up colonies in their sovereign territory. [2] According to Brook, the Chinese not going out exploring the world did put them at a technological and linguistic disadvantage as they had a very limited world view and lacked experience of the increasingly cosmopolitan world outside their borders. [2] This wasn't so much of a problem in Vermeer's time but was to become more of an issue as Europe's empires grew in the 18th century and 19th centuries. [2]

Indra's net

In the book, the author uses the metaphor of Indra's net: [6]

Writing in The Spectator , Sarah Burton explains that Brook uses this metaphor, and its interconnectedness, "to help understand the multiplicity of causes and effects producing the way we are and the way we were." She adds: "In the same way, the journeys through Brook's picture-portals intersect with each other, at the same time shedding light on each other. [7]


Writing in The Guardian , Kathryn Hughes describes Vermeer's Hat as "an exhilarating book" and "a brilliant attempt to make us understand the reach and breadth of the first global age." [3] She states that "What Brook wants us to understand [...] is that these domains, the local and the transnational, were intimately connected centuries before anyone came up with the world wide web." [3]

Also in The Guardian, Jerry Brotton describes Vermeer's Hat as "the finest book on Vermeer I've read in years." [8] He states that "by deftly unravelling their stories, he gives us a picture of Vermeer unwittingly sitting in at the birth of the modern global world" and concludes that "This is a fabulous book that drags Vermeer away from our complacent Eurocentric assumptions of his insular domesticity." [8]

In the Literary Review , Lisa Jardine describes the book as an "enthralling" "jewel of a study". [9]

In the Washington Post , Michael Dirda writes: "Vermeer's Hat ... provides not only valuable historical insight but also enthralling intellectual entertainment." [10]

In The Independent , TH Barrett states that "[Brook] is too good a scholar to treat Vermeer's paintings as straightforward windows into the past, but he does show us how pictorial sources can open "doors" into "corridors" linking up diverse regions of the globe." [11]

Also in The Independent, speaking of the way the author "teases out" detail from the paintings, Lesley McDowell states that "[he] shows, better than anyone I've read so far, the truly subversive power of detail – especially when it's brought to the fore instead of filling in the background." [12]

Douglas Smith writes in The Seattle Times "In Brook's hands Vermeer's canvases, together with a painting by a second-rate contemporary and an old chipped Delft plate, are just bright lures to catch our attention before he takes us on his rich, suggestive tours of the 17th-century world." [13] He goes on to say: "In recounting these tales of international trade, cultural exchange and foreign encounter, Brook does more than merely sketch the beginnings of globalization and highlight the forces that brought our modern world into being; rather, he offers a timely reminder of humanity's interdependence." [13]

Peter Conrad, writing in The Observer , is more critical. He is of the opinion that "Brook is so intent on cost and the grim injustice of expropriation that he can seem crassly unresponsive, indifferent to the almost beatific peace of the paintings" [1] and "knows everything about price, but rather less about value." [1]


In 2009, Vermeer's Hat won Brook the Mark Lynton History Prize from Columbia University in New York, worth $10,000 (U.S.). [14] [15] The prize is one of the Lukas Prize Project awards. [16] [17] The book was described as a "bold, original and compulsively readable work of history." [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Delft City and municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

Delft is a city and municipality in the province of South Holland, Netherlands. It is located between Rotterdam, to the southeast, and The Hague, to the northwest. Together with them, it is part of both Rotterdam–The Hague metropolitan area and the Randstad.

Johannes Vermeer 17th-century Dutch painter

Johannes Vermeer, in original Dutch Jan Vermeer van Delft, was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life. During his lifetime, he was a moderately successful provincial genre painter, recognized in Delft and The Hague. Nonetheless, he produced relatively few paintings and evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.

Han van Meegeren Dutch painter and art forger

Henricus Antonius "Han" van Meegeren was a Dutch painter and portraitist, considered to be one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century. Despite his life of crime, van Meegeren became a national hero after World War II when it was revealed that he had sold a forged painting to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Delftware Type of glazed pottery, originating from the Low Countries

Delftware or Delft pottery, also known as Delft Blue, is a general term now used for Dutch tin-glazed earthenware, a form of faience. Most of it is blue and white pottery, and the city of Delft in the Netherlands was the major centre of production, but the term covers wares with other colours, and made elsewhere. It is also used for similar pottery that it influenced made in England, but this should be called English delftware to avoid confusion.

Dutch Golden Age Historical period of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the 17th century

The Dutch Golden Age was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, military, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years' War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

Kraak ware Chinese Ming Dynasty imported porcelain in 16th- & 17th-century Europe

Kraak ware or Kraak porcelain is a type of Chinese export porcelain produced mainly in the late Ming Dynasty, in the Wanli reign (1573–1620), but also in the Tianqi (1620-1627) and the Chongzhen (1627-1644). It was among the first Chinese export wares to arrive in Europe in mass quantities, and was frequently featured in Dutch Golden Age paintings of still life subjects with foreign luxuries.

Blue and white pottery porcelain style from China

"Blue and white pottery" covers a wide range of white pottery and porcelain decorated under the glaze with a blue pigment, generally cobalt oxide. The decoration is commonly applied by hand, originally by brush painting, but nowadays by stencilling or by transfer-printing, though other methods of application have also been used. The cobalt pigment is one of the very few that can withstand the highest firing temperatures that are required, in particular for porcelain, which partly accounts for its long-lasting popularity. Historically, many other colours required overglaze decoration and then a second firing at a lower temperature to fix that.

<i>The Art of Painting</i> Vermeer painting

The Art of Painting, also known as The Allegory of Painting, or Painter in his Studio, is a 17th-century oil on canvas painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is owned by the Austrian Republic and is on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

<i>The Little Street</i> Painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer

The Little Street is a painting by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, executed c. 1657–58. It is exhibited at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, and signed, below the window in the lower left-hand corner, "I V MEER".

<i>The Milkmaid</i> (Vermeer) 1658 painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid, sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a "milkmaid", in fact, a domestic kitchen maid, by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which regards it as "unquestionably one of the museum's finest attractions".

<i>Girl Interrupted at Her Music</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

Girl Interrupted at Her Music is a painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It was painted in the baroque style, probably between the years 1658 and 1659, using oil on canvas. Since 1901 it has been in the Frick Collection in New York City.

Vermeer is a Dutch toponymic surname. It is a contraction of Van der Meer, meaning "from the lake."

<i>A Lady Writing a Letter</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

A Lady Writing a Letter is an oil painting attributed to 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is believed to have been completed around 1665. The Lady is seen to be writing a letter and has been interrupted, so gently turns her head to see what is happening. She wears twelve pearls.

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i> 1665 painting by Johannes Vermeer, in the collection of the Mauritshuis

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an oil painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, dated c. 1665. Going by various names over the centuries, it became known by its present title towards the end of the 20th century after the large pearl earring worn by the girl portrayed there. The work has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague since 1902 and has been the subject of various literary treatments. In 2006, the Dutch public selected it as the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands.

<i>The Astronomer</i> (Vermeer) painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer is a painting finished in about 1668 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is oil on canvas, 51 cm × 45 cm, and is on display at the Louvre, in Paris, France.

Leonaert Bramer painter from the Northern Netherlands

Leonaert Bramer, also Leendert or Leonard, was a Dutch painter known primarily for genre, religious, and history paintings. Very prolific as a painter and draftsman, he is noted especially for nocturnal scenes which show a penchant for exotic details of costume and setting. He also painted frescos—a rarity north of the Alps—which have not survived, as well as murals on canvas, few of which are extant. Bramer is one of the most intriguing personalities in seventeenth-century Dutch art.

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i> (novel) Book by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 1999 historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 17th-century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by local painter Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model and the painting. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film of the same name and a 2008 play.

Timothy Brook Canadian university professor, historian

Timothy James Brook is a Canadian historian, sinologist, and writer specializing in the study of China (sinology). He holds the Republic of China Chair, Department of History, University of British Columbia.

Walter Arthur Liedtke, Jr. was an American art historian, writer and Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was known as one of the world's leading scholars of Dutch and Flemish paintings. He died in the 2015 Metro-North Valhalla train crash.

Johannes Vermeer in popular culture

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life. His works have been a common theme in literature and films in popular culture since the rediscovery of his works by 20th century art scholars.


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  10. Dirda, Michael (27 January 2008). "Painting the World: How a hunger for tea and tobacco created global trade". Washington Post . Retrieved 2010-01-22.
  11. Barrett, TH (1 August 2008). "Vermeer's Hat, by Timothy Brook: The fine art of global trade". The Independent . Retrieved 2010-01-22.
  12. McDowell, Lesley (23 August 2009). "Vermeer's Hat, By Timothy Brook". The Independent . Retrieved 2010-01-25.
  13. 1 2 Smith, Douglas (1 February 2008). "The world through the work of a Dutch master". The Seattle Times . Retrieved 2010-01-22.
  14. Itzkoff, Dave (7 April 2009). "Prizes for Writers of Nonfiction". NY Times . The New York Times Company. p. C2. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  15. "Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, Nieman Foundation Announce Winners of the 2009 Lukas Prize Project Awards". Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University . Harvard College. 30 March 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  16. 1 2 Staff (1 April 2009). "Vancouver writer Timothy Brook wins U.S. nonfiction prize". CBC News . Retrieved 2010-01-24.
  17. Hoffmann, Jackie (29 May 2009). "UBC Professor Wins Prestigious History Prize". Faculty of Arts, University of British Columbia. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 29 January 2010.

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