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Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  1,901 ratings  ·  189 reviews
In the hands of an award-winning historian, Vermeer's dazzling paintings become windows that reveal how daily life and thought--from Delft to Beijing--were transformed in the seventeenth century, when the world first became global.
A painting shows a military officer in a Dutch sitting room, talking to a laughing girl. In another, a woman at a window weighs pieces of silve
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published December 26th 2007 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (first published January 15th 2005)
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Patricia If you want the best book to read about Vermeer read John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton U. Press, 1989.

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Michael Finocchiaro
Timothy Brook brings a fascinating perspective on Vermeer's world by using his works of art as portals back to the 17th century in how economic changes and empire-building linked Delft (Vermeer's hometown in the Netherlands) to distant China and the Americas. It is a masterful study that I couldn't put down. It does a great job of not sounding overly erudite and yet now too many "I think" or exclamation points (two pet peeves that I have with other historical or biographical books such as the ab ...more
Dec 28, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction

This was an interesting and enlightening book, but, imho, it engaged in false advertising.

Timothy Brook, an Oxford scholar, uses five Johannes Vermeer paintings (plus a couple of other artworks) as ways to explore the expanding world of global trade and intercultural contact in the 1600s.

In the title chapter, for instance, he uses one of those fantastically broad-brimmed Dutch hats in a Vermeer painting to explore the beaver trapping trade in Canada when the French first arrived (which taught me
Feb 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook is not really about Vermeer, or hats, or art for that matter. It’s a book about globalization sixteenth century-style. Using elements from a few of the Dutchman’s paintings – plus some others from the period – the author identifies evidence of global trade, of the economic history of a century that saw the opening up of commerce on a scale the world had previously not known. And unlike the more academic studies of Wallerstein or Gunder Frank, Timothy Brook’s book i ...more
Sep 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
If you're looking for a book detailing the influence of commercial trade in China around the mid 17th century then you've found a gem. If you're looking for a book about Vermeer's paintings then I suggest you pick something else. We're treated to a wonderful depiction of life in the 17th century and the book sets a new standard by which textbooks for high school should be judged. The author uses one important principle to make the book come alive: history is not about places, facts and events. I ...more
Apr 12, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I think I was mourning what could have been with this book, making it hard to appreciate what was. It offers no real insight to Vermeer or his paintings or to Holland and its global trade/conquest in the 1600s. Or very little. That is what I wanted. What it does do is give you an immense sense of how interconnected Europe and China were, the weight of China in the European imagination, the efforts of primarily the Portuguese and the Spanish to dominate trade and the vicissitudes they faced. This ...more
Premise: look carefully at paintings by Vermeer and you can find details that are doors into that world and reflect the culture, politics, arts, and even the weather patterns of the day.

My observations:

The Dutch East India Company was the WalMart of its day, bringing exotic goods from afar at such a rapid pace that the exotic became the everyday, at reasonable prices, and causing social change by the sheer size of the enterprise. Save money - live better - Dutch East India!

I greatly admire th
Oliver Dutton
May 17, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This was a brisk and interesting exposition of the Netherlands' commercial seventeenth century. Although the titular focus is on the painter Vermeer, the book's principal focus is Sino-Dutch commercial relations in the period. Timothy Brook's desire to connect these two aspects is, I imagine, an attempt to make this important period more accessible. While generally interesting, this attempt is what leads to the book's imperfections. First, the period's transformation is not treated systematicall ...more
Sep 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Initially I hated this so much but actually it was a really interesting way of exploring global history in the 17th century.
Fascinating book
Joanne Annabannabobanna
This was a fascinating journey, mainly through some of the works of an artist who happened to be planted in the vortex of a new, much wider world that was just beginning to open. Disparagingly described by another reviewer as an excuse by the author to discuss his expertise in Chinese history, I found Vermeer’s Hat to be of endless interest, maybe because I had enjoyed the novel Shogun when first published and could already make some connections.

Johannes Vermeer was unique in the way he incorpor
Mar 11, 2017 rated it liked it
awkwardly and sometimes irritatingly held together by the subject Vermeer that doesn't have much to do with the book at all. also wasn't impressed by the idea of opening doors in paintings which led the writer to even using another's painters work instead of one by Vermeer. as expected liked the parts about Vermeer and Delft and not so much the ones about China ...more
Oct 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
I had to read this book for my world history class, and was dreading it ever so slightly, but once I got into tune with the author's writing style I actually found it an enjoyable read. Brook mixes stories with history and I can't believe how much I learned about a period I thought myself decently-versed in. My favorite chapter is "School for Smoking," just a personal note. :) Most of the book is very intriguing, and I certainly see a few normal, household objects in a different light now that I ...more
Dan Vine
Apr 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Very readable and full of fascinating stories of the seventeenth century. You have to keep your chronological wits about you as it does jump around. What is most valuable is having a sinologists's take on European trade. ...more
Dec 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
A really great book shows us how everything is great and worth to die for
Kai Erkkila
Feb 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Vermeer's Hat, written by Timothy Brook, is a book that aims to explain the introduction and causes of the global trade system in the seventeenth century. He makes an effort to introduce this phenomenon from a non-western perspective, due to the fact that World History is often portrayed as such. Timothy Brook is an expert on Chinese History, and it shows with his efforts to tie China into the discussion of each major commodity that is traded in the seventeenth century. He uses popular paintings ...more
Jan 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

During the 17th century enough of the world's civilizations were interconnected economically, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, that I think the much over-used word "global" is appropriate. Timothy Brook, a historian who usually writes about China, makes these interconnections concrete by using objects from the 17th century Netherlands. Several of the objects were portrayed in pictures by the painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), a resident of the city of Delft. Delft was also a he
Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was ok
Besides Mark and Martin's excellent reviews concerning this book, I'm going to add two things that were not mentioned. Yes, this book is only tangentially connected to Vermeer and The Netherlands. ("Barbarians at the Gate: Ming Dynasty China's Relations with those Dastardly Europeans" would have also been a more accurate title according to the author's point of view as a Chinese scholar.) However, I still cannot understand why a Chinese scholar would refer to Chinese places by European imperiali ...more
Brook is a historian of China, who, along with Craig Clunas and a few others, has shown the existence of a 'consumer culture' in Ming and Qing China. This goes against the myth of an oriental cultural and economic 'stasis', as for example defended by Braudel. This thesis make for exciting reads because not only they show how an alien culture was actually much like our own, but they also point to the important fact that 'oriental' markets had dynamics of their own.
Brook's book is a brilliant att
Chris Cook
Mar 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This book has an interesting premise--the author analyzes various works of art, primarily by Vermeer, to show how Asian culture was inextricably linked to European culture by as early as the seventeenth century. Brook's expertise is in Chinese history, and so his analysis is heavy on the link between China and Delft. This is probably why, when analyzing the still life of fruit that has spilled out of a Chinese bowl on a Persian rug, he follows the origin of the Chinese bowl and how it got to Del ...more
Steve Majerus-Collins
Mar 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Here's what I knew about Vermeer before picking up this volume: zip. Well, maybe I knew he was a painter, but nothing more. So I didn't have the slightest idea what to expect, which is just as well. What Timothy Brook does in this wide-ranging volume is to peer into Vermeer's paintings to talk not about art, but about what they show of the world that Vermeer inhabited in his Dutch town in the 1600s. That hat on one canvas opens the door to a long talk about the beaver trade. That vase slips into ...more
Aug 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, art
One might get the impression from the main part of the title and the illustration on the cover that this book is much more about Vermeer than it turns out to be. It turns out that the subtitle is the operative part. Brook uses various pieces of art as doors opening into the 17th century and the beginning of globalization; not even all the art is Vermeer's. The chapters on smoking and voyages in particular have virtually nothing to do with him directly. However, this is a fascinating book, with a ...more
Brian Darvell
Aug 07, 2020 rated it liked it
I went into this book expecting something quite different than what I found. Not in a bad way mind you but still not what I had originally purchased the book for.

This nonfiction book really has very little to actually do with Vermeer at all. The premise is that the author takes items that exist in some artwork that was created during the 17th-century and then muses upon what historical importance those items show during that time frame. A neat concept but I wasn't fully impressed since there was
Nicola Pierce
May 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It wasn't what I expected and I know I did it a disservice by reading it as quickly as I did. Meticulously researched and precisely written, it was a little beyond me. I have just started chemo this week and needed something a lot easier to read. I had seized upon it in the shop because of the cover and its first sentence, and what I mistakenly understood to be its premise - that it was to be more personal in tone about the writer, the painter and the art. Instead, it is a very fine history of g ...more
Vincent Hernot
Feb 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
A bit hard to get into as it first looks as if this is going to be one of those good-idea-pushed-too far-and-made-artificial books, but no!
It's a bit laborious at times, and some links feel a bit forced so that the writer can cram in his knowledge of things Asian without any other excuse than a superficial relation.
Yet it works, it does work, and by the end you not only get a good idea of that time, and of the Netherlands at that time, but also some great glimpses of the East and of the inter-co
Ann Joyce
Jun 01, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: read2021
This book examines the history of 17th century globalization through five Vermeer paintings. The author is an expert on Chinese history so the book focuses on the developing trade between China and Europe during the late Ming and early Ching Dynasties. The stories that the author tells are engaging and useful for understanding concepts such as transculturalization. While this is a pretty good book, the author gets a bit preachy about globalization. That seems to me to be the biggest flaw of the ...more
A'lexis Rai-ana
Feb 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book is good if you're into history and other stuff like that. If you're not really not into history in the 17th century or into paintings/art this book isn't for you. It touches on a lot of history using Vermeer's paintings, you just have to be able to dig deep into the paintings to understand the history aspect of the book. It's a good read but like I said, if you're not into history/art, I wouldn't recommend it. ...more
Feb 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Brook takes Vermeer's paintings as a window into the fascinating world of capitalist expansion in the 17th century. He does a great job of painting the picture of how the world was changing at this incredible moment of history.

Some chapters are fantastic (Beaver trade, Tobacco trade), but others get bogged down in uninteresting details. The content is hit and miss, but the overall impression that it leaves you with is lasting.
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most stimulating and indeed exhilarating books I’ve read.

A good book on a historical subject casts new light on some area of the past and reveals connections and perspectives that illuminate it. This book accomplishes it in multiple ways. Its chapters are like a series of new windows opening onto the 17th century. After my second reading (the first was a couple of years ago), my enthusiasm is as great as ever.
Mark Edlund
Nov 30, 2019 rated it liked it
History - an interesting book on the Dutch painter, Vermeer. Rather than being an art history book, as I expected, it instead focuses on one small part of five of his paintings and then tells of the history behind this object. He discusses coins, slavery, porcelain and tobacco in interesting detail around the time period the painting was done.
Canadian references - author is Canadian, references to Champlain's work in New France.
Pharmacy reference - mention of pharmacists and tobacco.
Richard Marshall
Sep 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A scholarly appreciation of the 17th Century seen through the works of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Brook cleverly connects the people and artefacts shown in Vermeer’s paintings with the voyages of exploration being undertaken by his contemporaries or near contemporaries and the subsequent development of European trade with the Near East. A very readable account by an articulate intellectual.
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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.

His research interests include the social and cultural history of the Ming Dynasty in China; law and punishment in Imperial China; collaboration during Japan's wartime occupation of China, 1937

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