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Reflections on Vermeer’s Hat

June 23, 2010

Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury Press 2008; paperback 2009).

Although Vermeer’s Hat is classified by its publisher as art history, it is only superficially so. The author, Timothy Brook, is a Chinese historian who has focused primarily on the social and cultural history of the Ming dynasty in earlier books such as The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook begins with paintings in the Netherlands rather than with written documents in China. His stated goal is to encourage the us to question the objects that we see in the paintings more as historians than as art historians, to “look hard at objects as signs of the time and place in which the painting was made.” [1] In this way, Brook argues, we can trace the web of connections that spread across the world beginning in the 1600s. Rather than art history, then, the book is in fact a cultural world history that uses a handful of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings as doorways into understanding the global seventeenth century.

The eponymous hat of the title is not Vermeer’s own, but the one worn by the soldier in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1655-1660). This painting is seemingly without an obvious material connection to the Middle Kingdom. But Brook argues that the Canadian beaver pelt used to make the felt of this popular seventeenth-century man’s hat arrived in Europe thanks to the search for the Northwest Passage to China. Other material evidence of globalization examined in the book comes from Chinese and Delft blue-and-white dishes, globes and maps, a balance for weighing money, and a young African servant. Brook sets aside the well-established symbolism of the objects in Vermeer’s paintings and treats them at face value: in his own words, they are “not obscure icons but simple objects.” It is through these ultimately not-so-simple objects that we encounter Vermeer’s widening world as a microcosm of globalization.

Vermeer’s Hat is two years old at this point, and reviews are easy to find. His practice of reading paintings for their material revelations is now firmly part of scholarship produced in the present. To see this method in action, one need look no further than the latest Art Bulletin cover article on Velasquez’s Las Meninas, in which Byron Ellsworth Hamann examines the cochineal-dyed curtains, red-glazed water pitcher known as a búcaro, and a silver tray depicted in the painting to connect the work to Spain’s growing global economy in the Americas. But I wish to address a different issue in response to Vermeer’s Hat: why did a Chinese historian choose Dutch rather than Chinese paintings as evidence early modern globalization? Why did Brook travel away from China to the other half of the Eurasian continent to find material evidence for the web of international connections that grew so rapidly during the seventeenth century?

The answer seems to be very simple. Although we know significant contact between Europe and China occurred in the seventeenth century, the surviving Chinese art and visual culture of the period shows little material evidence of that contact. Although both James Cahill and Richard Barnhart have argued the evidence in painting, and Hui-hung Chen in printed materials[2], what little proof survives is nearly always stylistic rather than material. It is rare to find European pictorial techniques in a seventeenth-century work; rarer still to find a European object – unless, of course, the work has been copied from a European source, such as the Christian images included in Master Cheng’s Garden of Ink-Cakes. As both Brook and his fellow Oxford professor Craig Clunas[3] have previously argued, seventeenth-century China was not uninterested in foreign exotica, and Europe was one of many sources on a list that included at least Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. But however strong this interest may have been, imported goods and ideas are only infrequently found in seventeenth-century Chinese paintings. Considering that period painting theory and aesthetics were strongly informed by the literatus Dong Qichang (1555-1636), this is perhaps unsurprising.

In the eighteenth century, there is rather more material evidence of globalization in painting, but predominantly in imperial academy works. Jesuit presence at court, international imperial tribute, and the Qianlong emperor’s expansionist tendencies brought globalization directly to the landlocked capital of Beijing. For example, Qianlong is depicted with a telescope in his train during a formal hunt at the imperial summer retreat at Chengde[4], and imperial portraits exist of a woman (often believed to be the Fragrant Concubine) in both European armor and European dress. Material proof of eighteenth-century China’s interest in the products of globalization is easily found in the literary record, particularly in the Dream of the Red Chamber. However, as in the seventeenth century, the most prevalent visual evidence of China’s contact with Europe is still stylistic rather than material, and minimized by most elite artists outside the court milieu. In Chinese painting, stylistic evidence of contact was valued more than the material evidence – or at least, that is what current scholarship suggests.

While not art history per se, Vermeer’s Hat does present a compelling methodology to add to the Chinese art historian’s toolbox. In Chinese painting as a whole, it is easy entirely too easy to become caught up in symbolism at the expense of a simpler reading. In the case of eighteenth-century painting, it is too easy to become caught up in at the surface with the Sino-European style. But as Brook demonstrates, there are benefits to taking a step back from deeper meaning. Applying Brook’s method, of parsing objects’ cultural existence, to the considerable body of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese art and visual culture produced in contact with non-Han cultures could very well uncover the Chinese equivalent of Vermeer’s hat.

**Next week: Chinese art at the 1904 St. Louis Expo


[1] Brook, 9.

[2] James Cahill, The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1986); Richard Barnhart, “Dong Qichang and Western Learning: A Hypothesis in Honor of James Cahill,” Archives of Asian Art 50 (1997-1998), 7-16; Hui-hung Chen, “Chinese Perception of European Perspective: A Jesuit Case in the Seventeenth Century,” The Seventeenth Century 24:1 (April 2009), 97-128; “The Human Body as a Universe: Understanding Heaven by Visualization and Sensibility in Jesuit Cartography in China,” The Catholic Historical Review 93:3 (July 2007), 517-552; “Encounters in People Religions and Sciences: Jesuit Visual Culture in Seventeenth Century China,” PhD diss., Brown University, 2004.

[3] Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[4] Dorothy Berinstein, “Hunts, processions, and telescopes: A painting of an imperial hunt by Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione),” Res 35 (Spring 1999), 171-184.


This article is original work © 2010 Kristina Kleutghen and licensed under Creative Commons. You may copy, distribute, and transmit this article only under the following conditions. Please cite responsibly. Comments are most welcome!
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