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 China in the 17th century. Starting from details in five of Vermeer's paintings, he takes readers on a series of brilliantly circuitous mystery tours that reveal the savagery on which western civilisation was built. The hat of his title is the wide-brimmed, high-crowned fashion item worn by the officer in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl. To make a hat like that you must have stiff felt, manufactured from beaver pelts. By the start of the 17th century, European and Scandinavian beavers had been driven to extinction by the demands of the hatting industry, so a new source was needed. Brook's first set piece is a battle in 1609 on the shore of one of the Great Lakes between a band of French explorers and an army of Mohawk warriors. Armed with arquebuses, the French rapidly gunned down the Mohawks, and this display of firepower persuaded the remaining tribesmen to provide a regular supply of North American beavers for European hats. It also marked the start of the destruction of North American native culture.

The French, though, were not really looking for beavers. They were looking for China. Marco Polo's Travels had kindled the European imagination with visions of sumptuous wealth in a wonderland on the edge of the known world. Opening up trade routes to China became an imperative. Under the Ming dynasty, China discouraged all contact with foreigners, and it was a capital offence to leave the emperor's realm without special permission. But petty hindrances of that kind did not deter European enterprise. The French Mohawk-slayers believed they would find a sea route to China by paddling westwards across the Great Lakes. With a firmer grasp of geography, the Portuguese and Spanish set up trading stations in Macao and Manila respectively. The Dutch came on the scene rather late, and obtained access to Chinese goods at first by the simple expedient of stealing them from the Spanish and Portuguese. In 1602, they seized a Portuguese carrack with a cargo of porcelain, which was the earliest great trove of tableware to reach Holland, and the beginning of a naval war waged by the Dutch to dominate trade with Asia. In the next half century, an estimated 3m pieces of porcelain were carried to Holland in Dutch East India Company ships.

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. China transformed Dutch domestic interiors, and painters reflected the new luxury, creating a popular art form (the still life) in which porcelain meets opulent eatables. The china that westerners so prized was regarded by the Chinese as trash, fit only for export. Truly fine pieces were reserved for the home market. The Vermeer family's plate can be identified as a klapmuts or soup dish, an inferior item specially produced for boorish foreigners who spooned their soup out of bowls, whereas the civilised Chinese drank theirs from tall cups.

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 Europe in the 17th century. The fruit of barbarous exploitation, it funded the trade in Asian luxuries. In the 50 years before Vermeer painted his picture, 500 tons of silver reached China in Dutch vessels alone, and each spring a Spanish galleon loaded with silver arrived in Manila from Mexico. The Spaniards who manned the garrison there regarded the Chinese with whom they traded as less than human. After an uprising in 1639, the governor ordered the entire Chinese population of the port of Cavite to be put to death. Only 23 escaped. A Spanish chronicler hailed the massacre as “a great mercy of God”. As Brook comments, this frenzy of horror and bloodshed is invisible in Woman Holding a Balance. The scene seems entirely innocent, and a holy picture hangs on the wall at the back.

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 China, and delivered African slaves to tobacco plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil. The habit spread with astonishing speed. Introduced into China around 1621, smoking was commonplace by 1630, despite the emperor's decree that anyone selling tobacco would be beheaded. The sultan banned smoking on pain of death throughout the Ottoman empire, with similar lack of effect.

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 North Sea fishing grounds. They testify to global cooling, the so called “little ice-age”, which, he reckons, was the overwhelming condition behind early modern history. Arctic ice moving south caused freeze-ups off the coast of Norway, and brought North Sea fish stocks within reach of Dutch boats. Some think this windfall accounts for the prosperity of the 17th-century Dutch, providing the spare money for art, and bringing the Dutch school of painting into existence. The first cold winter was in 1564, and the following year Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted his first snow-bound landscape, creating the fashion for Dutch winterscapes.

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 Netherlands in 1672, the art market collapsed. He found himself with 11 children to feed in a house full of unsaleable canvases, and despair overtook him. He fell into a “frenzy”, his widow records, dying within a couple of days, aged 43.

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.

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