Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is a book by the historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 Professor Timothy Brook
Timothy Brook (historian)
Timothy James Brook , who writes as Timothy Brook and who has had many academic works published, is a distinguished historian specializing in the study of China...

 in which he explores the roots of world trade
International trade
International trade is the exchange of capital, goods, and services across international borders or territories. In most countries, such trade represents a significant share of gross domestic product...

 in the 17th century, through six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter
Dutch Golden Age painting
Dutch Golden Age painting is the painting of the Dutch Golden Age, a period in Dutch history generally spanning the 17th century, during and after the later part of the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence. The new Dutch Republic was the most prosperous nation in Europe, and led European trade,...

 Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer
Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer was a Dutch painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime...

. It focusses especially on growing ties between Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 and the rest of the world and the impact of China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 on the world, during what Brook sees as an "age of innovation
Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society...

" and improvisation
Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or...



Brook argues that globalization
Globalization refers to the increasingly global relationships of culture, people and economic activity. Most often, it refers to economics: the global distribution of the production of goods and services, through reduction of barriers to international trade such as tariffs, export fees, and import...

, which is often taken to be a modern (i.e. late-20th/21st-century) phenomenon, actually had its roots in the 17th century; 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." The growth in trade and exploration
Exploration is the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. Exploration occurs in all non-sessile animal species, including humans...

 was facilitated in part by advances in navigation
Navigation is the process of monitoring and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another. It is also the term of art used for the specialized knowledge used by navigators to perform navigation tasks...

 and in shipbuilding
Shipbuilding is the construction of ships and floating vessels. It normally takes place in a specialized facility known as a shipyard. Shipbuilders, also called shipwrights, follow a specialized occupation that traces its roots to before recorded history.Shipbuilding and ship repairs, both...

 technology and also, according to the author, was driven along when European nations such as "England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

 and France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 started to fight their way into the trade."

By studying and analyzing the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, beginning with his landscape
Landscape art
Landscape art is a term that covers the depiction of natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, and especially art where the main subject is a wide view, with its elements arranged into a coherent composition. In other works landscape backgrounds for figures can still...

 View of Delft
View of Delft (Vermeer)
View of Delft is an oil painting by Johannes Vermeer. Painted ca. 1660-1661, the painting of the Dutch artist's hometown is among his most popular. Painted at a time when cityscapes were not commonplace, it is one of three known paintings of Delft by Vermeer, along with The Little Street and the...

, 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
Socioeconomics or socio-economics or social economics is an umbrella term with different usages. 'Social economics' may refer broadly to the "use of economics in the study of society." More narrowly, contemporary practice considers behavioral interactions of individuals and groups through social...

 phenomena and globalization. In the case of the port in Delft
Delft is a city and municipality in the province of South Holland , the Netherlands. It is located between Rotterdam and The Hague....

 in the Netherlands, for example, he finds evidence of the Dutch East India Company
Dutch East India Company
The Dutch East India Company was a chartered company established in 1602, when the States-General of the Netherlands granted it a 21-year monopoly to carry out colonial activities in Asia...

's operations. This is often said to be the world's first multinational corporation
Multinational corporation
A multi national corporation or enterprise , is a corporation or an enterprise that manages production or delivers services in more than one country. It can also be referred to as an international corporation...

, which competing traders
A merchant is a businessperson who trades in commodities that were produced by others, in order to earn a profit.Merchants can be one of two types:# A wholesale merchant operates in the chain between producer and retail merchant...

 were forced to join; it had quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies
In politics and history, a colony is a territory under the immediate political control of a state. For colonies in antiquity, city-states would often found their own colonies. Some colonies were historically countries, while others were territories without definite statehood from their inception....

, and played a powerful and prominent role in trade between the Dutch
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

 and Asia
Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population...

, including China.

The painting entitled Officer and Laughing Girl
Officer and Laughing Girl
Officer and Laughing Girl, also known as Officer and a Laughing Girl and Officer With a Laughing Girl, is a painting created by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in about 1657 and now in The Frick Collection in New York....

, 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, showing a patriotic pride which went along with the emergence of the Netherlands from Spanish
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 occupation, and the painting is also used to examine trade between Europe and North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

. The huge felt
Felt is a non-woven cloth that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing woollen fibres. While some types of felt are very soft, some are tough enough to form construction materials. Felt can be of any colour, and made into any shape or size....

 hat itself, Brook says, is made of beaver
The beaver is a primarily nocturnal, large, semi-aquatic rodent. Castor includes two extant species, North American Beaver and Eurasian Beaver . Beavers are known for building dams, canals, and lodges . They are the second-largest rodent in the world...

Fur trade
The fur trade is a worldwide industry dealing in the acquisition and sale of animal fur. Since the establishment of world market for in the early modern period furs of boreal, polar and cold temperate mammalian animals have been the most valued...

 and the origin of that would be via French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 traders operating in North America. This being before the discovery of the Northwest Passage
Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans...

, the French had been commissioned to find a route to China, and the beaver fur simply helped them "cover their costs." 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
Atlantic slave trade
The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the trans-atlantic slave trade, refers to the trade in slaves that took place across the Atlantic ocean from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries...

 from Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

, and the metallic artefacts and guns which were given in exchange.

In the painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is an oil painting by Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. Completed in approximately 1657–1659, the well-preserved painting is on display at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden...

, there is a large Chinese porcelain
Chinese porcelain
Chinese ceramic ware shows a continuous development since the pre-dynastic periods, and is one of the most significant forms of Chinese art. China is richly endowed with the raw materials needed for making ceramics. The first types of ceramics were made during the Palaeolithic era...

 bowl in the foreground (standing on a Turkish carpet
Turkish carpet
Turkish carpets come in distinct styles, from different regions of Turkey. Important differentiators between the types include the materials, construction and the patterns.-History:...

), and Brook uses this to introduce the subject of trade with China. 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. In sharp contrast to the necessary outward-looking gaze of countries in Europe, the stereotypical
A stereotype is a popular belief about specific social groups or types of individuals. The concepts of "stereotype" and "prejudice" are often confused with many other different meanings...

 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." 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. They did not want traders setting up colonies in their sovereign territory
Sovereignty is the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided...

. According to Brook, the Chinese not going out exploring the world did put them at a technological and linguistic
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

 disadvantage as they had a very limited world view and lacked experience of the increasingly cosmopolitan
Multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g...

 world outside their borders. This wasn't so much of a problem in Vermeer's time but was to become more of an issue as Europe's imperial empires
Imperialism, as defined by Dictionary of Human Geography, is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." The imperialism of the last 500 years,...

 grew in the 18th century and 19th centuries.

Indra's net

In the book, the author uses the metaphor of Indra's net
Indra's net
Indra's net is a metaphor used to illustrate the concepts of emptiness, dependent origination, and interpenetration in Buddhist philosophy...

Writing in The Spectator
The Spectator
The Spectator is a weekly British magazine first published on 6 July 1828. It is currently owned by David and Frederick Barclay, who also owns The Daily Telegraph. Its principal subject areas are politics and culture...

, 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.


Writing in The Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian, formerly known as The Manchester Guardian , is a British national daily newspaper in the Berliner format...

, Kathryn Hughes
Kathryn Hughes
Kathryn Hughes is a British historian, biographer and journalist. Educated at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University and the University of East Anglia; her doctorate in Victorian History was developed into her first book, The Victorian Governess...

 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." 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."

Also in The Guardian, Jerry Brotton describes Vermeer's Hat as "the finest book on Vermeer I've read in years." 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
Eurocentrism is the practice of viewing the world from a European perspective and with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the preeminence of European culture...

 assumptions of his insular domesticity."

In the Literary Review
Literary Review
Literary Review is a British literary magazine founded in 1979 by Anne Smith, then head of the Department of English at Edinburgh University. Its offices are currently on Lexington Street in Soho, London, and it has a circulation of 44,750. Britain's principal literary monthly, the magazine was...

, Lisa Jardine
Lisa Jardine
Lisa Anne Jardine CBE , née Lisa Anne Bronowski, is a British historian of the early modern period. She is professor of Renaissance Studies and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London, and is Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority...

 describes the book as an "enthralling" "jewel of a study".

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

In The Independent
The Independent
The Independent is a British national morning newspaper published in London by Independent Print Limited, owned by Alexander Lebedev since 2010. It is nicknamed the Indy, while the Sunday edition, The Independent on Sunday, is the Sindy. Launched in 1986, it is one of the youngest UK national daily...

, 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."

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."

Douglas Smith writes in The Seattle Times
The Seattle Times
The Seattle Times is a newspaper serving Seattle, Washington, US. It is the largest daily newspaper in the state of Washington. It has been, since the demise in 2009 of the printed version of the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle's only major daily print newspaper.-History: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." 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."

Peter Conrad
Peter Conrad (academic)
Peter Conrad is an Australian-born academic specializing in English literature, currently teaching at Christ Church at Oxford University....

, writing in The Observer
The Observer
The Observer is a British newspaper, published on Sundays. In the same place on the political spectrum as its daily sister paper The Guardian, which acquired it in 1993, it takes a liberal or social democratic line on most issues. It is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper.-Origins:The first issue,...

, 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" and "knows everything about price, but rather less about value."


In 2009, Vermeer's Hat won Brook the Mark Lynton History Prize
Mark Lynton History Prize
The Mark Lynton History Prize is an annual award in the amount of $10,000 given to a book "of history, on any subject, that best combines intellectual or scholarly distinction with felicity of expression"...

 from Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

 in New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

, worth $10,000 (U.S.). The prize is one of the Lukas Prize Project
J. Anthony Lukas
Jay Anthony Lukas, aka J. Anthony Lucas , was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author, probably best known for his 1985 book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, a classic study of race relations and school busing in Boston, Massachusetts, as...

 awards. The book was described as a "bold, original and compulsively readable work of history."

See also

  • Age of Discovery
    Age of Discovery
    The Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration and the Great Navigations , was a period in history starting in the early 15th century and continuing into the early 17th century during which Europeans engaged in intensive exploration of the world, establishing direct contacts with...

  • Baroque
    The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

  • Dutch Golden Age
    Dutch Golden Age
    The Golden Age was a period in Dutch history, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, military and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first half is characterised by the Eighty Years' War till 1648...

  • Early modern Europe
    Early modern Europe
    Early modern Europe is the term used by historians to refer to a period in the history of Europe which spanned the centuries between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roughly the late 15th century to the late 18th century...

  • Major explorations after the Age of Discovery
    Major explorations after the Age of Discovery
    Major explorations continued after the Age of Discovery. By the early seventeenth century, vessels were sufficiently well built and their navigators competent enough to travel to virtually anywhere on the planet by sea. In the 17th century Dutch explorers such as Willem Jansz and Abel Tasman...

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External links

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