Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook
This is a spellbinding book, though it is not really about Vermeer. Timothy Brook is a professor of Chinese, and his subject is Dutch trade with
The French, though, were not really looking for beavers. They were looking for
Brook hooks this trade expansion to Vermeer by way of the china plate glimpsed in the foreground of Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The same plate appears in A Woman Asleep, so the Vermeer family probably owned it. But, as Brook says, almost any Dutch painter of the period could supply a similar detail.
Brook introduces us to a manual on good taste written by a wealthy Chinese connoisseur called Wen in the mid-17th century, which epitomises the fatuity of opinionated aesthetes in every age and clime. Titled A Treatise on Superfluous Things, Wen's handbook enumerates the solecisms that only the irredeemably vulgar could commit, such as placing more than two blooms in a floral display, or serving tea in cups dating from later than the 15th century.
A detail in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance opens up another commercial hinterland. The woman is weighing coins, one of which Brook identifies as a silver ducat. Silver from the Spanish-American mines flooded
Tobacco is the other commodity that Brook tracks. As it happens, no Vermeer painting survives that shows anyone smoking. But it is common in Dutch painting, and we easily forget how beneficial it was believed to be. It was praised as a friend to democracy and rational discussion, stimulating thought and, unlike alcohol, promoting peace. Dutch ships took the wonder drug to
Scanning Dutch art, Brook watches out for other global developments besides trade. In Vermeer's View of Delft he fixes on two boats moored together at the extreme right of the canvas. These, he explains, are herring “busses”, designed for harvesting the
Brook's book is a telling antidote to the doctrine that art exists in some pure, ethereal realm, abstracted from the lives people lead. In his reading, art is as subject to economic vagaries as mining or fishing, and, examined with sufficient knowledge and care, will reveal the material conditions of its production. Vermeer's own life bears this out. When the French invaded the
His paintings are notoriously enigmatic, and Brook's guesses as to their meanings will not satisfy everyone - least of all, perhaps, his identification of the leering roué in The Procuress as a self-portrait. But as a guide to the world behind the pictures Vermeer's Hat is mind-expanding.