Painting the World

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 27, 2008


The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

By Timothy Brook

Bloomsbury. 272 pp. $27.95

Timothy Brook is a distinguished professor of Chinese, holding appointments at both Oxford University and St. John's College at the University of British Columbia. He's written a dozen scholarly volumes about Asian social and economic history, including The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China and Culture and Economy: The Shaping of Capitalism in Eastern Asia. There doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why such a formidable Sinologist should be bringing out a book with a 17th-century Dutch painting on the cover and the title Vermeer's Hat.

But the explanation turns out to be quite simple: This book isn't about Vermeer's brushstrokes or the use of light in his paintings. Instead, it really does focus on the fur hats -- and the old maps and the dishes of fruit and the silver coins -- pictured in those paintings. As his subtitle suggests, Brook hopes to use these pictorial elements to describe "the dawn of the global world," in particular the economic entanglements between the Netherlands and China.

Vermeer's Hat thus aims "to capture a sense of the larger whole of which both Shanghai and Delft were parts: a world in which people were weaving a web of connections and exchanges as never before." To do this, Brook looks at seven works of art -- not all of them by Vermeer -- "for the hints of broader historical forces that lurk in their details." For instance, in the chapter titled "School for Smoking," he notices that 17th-century Dutch porcelain, representing Chinese scenes, often shows people smoking. Where did the painter get the idea that the Chinese smoked? This leads to an overview of tobacco commerce and consumption in Asia, building on accounts of the shipping routes, the trade laws and the movement of silver, as well as tobacco, to the East. But Brook also takes time to discuss the social impact of chi yan or "eating smoke."

Such interlacing of the economic with the social and ideological Brook labels "transculturation," a term first coined by the Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz to describe "the process by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved." Sometimes this results in the destruction of what is already there, and usually "the outcomes of these globalizing processes cannot be controlled."

Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook reminds us that "the lure of China's wealth haunted the seventeenth-century world" and fueled the European hunger to acquire more and more of its silks and spices, coffee, tea and porcelain. To this end, the Netherlands created the famous Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie). The VOC, as it was known, "is to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin's kite is to electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have been predicted at the time. The world's first large joint-stock company, the VOC was formed in 1602 when the Dutch Republic obliged the many trading companies popping up to take advantage of the Asian trade boom to merge into a single commercial organization. . . . Within a few decades, the VOC proved itself to be the most powerful trading corporation in the seventeenth-century world and the model for the large-scale business enterprises that now dominate the global economy."

Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook keeps his economic history striking and anecdotal. "If there is one overwhelming condition that shaped the history of the seventeenth century more than any other, it is global cooling." Between 1550 and 1700, according to the book, temperatures fell all over the world. Grain prices rose; cold and plague decimated Venice and Amsterdam. But Dutch fleets enjoyed a herring boom, giving them money to invest in shipping. Why did Champlain push into unexplored Canada? For beaver pelts. And why did Europeans want those pelts? For expensive, durable hats. Profits from those hats would pay for something important: the search for the supposed water route across North America to China.

Brook takes pains to balance his story between Europe and Asia. He writes about the life of Wen Zhenheng, author of the marvelously titled guide to good taste and elegant living, A Treatise on Superfluous Things. Such a guidebook was needed because of nouveaux riches merchants who grew wealthy by trading with the West, yet wished to be accepted by the social aristocracy. Wen Zhenheng was there to help. Your porcelain should be "as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime." You must place only certain kinds of flowers in vases -- and do show restraint. "Any more than two stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern."

Brook also explains that the Chinese found foreign objects problematic. "Objects of beauty were valued to the extent that they could carry cultural meanings; in the case of antiques, meanings having to do with balance and decorum and a veneration of the past. Antiques were valued because they brought their owners into physical contact with a golden past from which the present had fallen away. Given the burden of meaning that objects had to carry, it was difficult to discern what value to attribute to objects coming from abroad."

Commercially, the 17th century was an age of silver, tobacco and slaves, and Brook shows how the three interconnect to form an intricate economic network. This new international economy is revealed in every aspect of life, not only in the account books of the VOC and the histories of the Jesuit missionaries in China and Latin America, but also in the items depicted in paintings by a Delft artist who died young. All our experience is global. As Brook writes in his final chapter, "If we can see that the history of any one place links us to all places, and ultimately to the history of the entire world, then there is no part of the past -- no holocaust and no achievement -- that is not our collective heritage." Vermeer's Hat shows how this is true of the 17th century and by so doing provides not only valuable historical insight but also enthralling intellectual entertainment. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is

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