Interview with Timothy Brook

Since the 1870s, when J. Soutendam, the first keeper of Delft’s archives, and Henry Havard, a French érudit, began looking for information about Vermeer and his family, the "Sphinx of Delft" has slowly been given a more tangible form. More recently, scholarly inquiry has extended into numerous areas of study including Dutch genre painting and iconography bringing Vermeer's artistic endeavors into relation with the work of his colleagues of the glorious Golden Age of Painting. Now, Canadian historian of China Timothy Brook provides a new tool to examine the artist's work and comprehend his complex times in Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.

"For Brook, Vermeer's pictures, which seem so intimate, actually offer a remarkable view of a rapidly expanding world. The officer’s dashing hat is made of beaver fur, which European explorers got from Native Americans in exchange for weapons. Those beaver pelts, in turn, financed the voyages of sailors seeking new routes to China. There—with silver mined in Peru—Europeans would purchase, by the thousands, the porcelains so often shown in Dutch paintings of this time. Moving outward from Vermeer’s studio, Brook traces the web of trade that was spreading across the globe."1

December, 2007

The Essential Vermeer: For many years, art historians pictured Vermeer as an isolated painter in a relatively small town, a painter who, in the security of perfectly arranged interiors, crafted scenes of domestic intimacy. Is there anything wrong with this picture in your opinion?

Timothy Brook: The image of Vermeer passing his days in a small town painting quiet domestic interiors is how we see him as we peer back from our cosmopolitan whirl and wonder at the smallness and completeness of the world his paintings seem to reveal. That world feels familiar, and yet so unlike our own. This mixed sense of familiarity and loss is why we enjoy imagining the places he lived in and painted with nostalgic pleasure. But Vermeer’s real world extended outside the walls of his mother-in-law’s house. He may have lived in a provincial town, but that town was the home of merchants who actively engaged in global trade, and the fruits of their trade flowed past his eyes. A few of these foreign things came right into his house, and he put them in his paintings. The world he wanted to depict was the intimate domestic setting in which he passed some of his time, but the world in which he lived was quite as wide as our own, if less busy, and he was part of it.

Why did you choose Vermeer's "Officer and Laughing Girl" in particular as the starting point for an in-depth study on the dawn of globalization rather than any other Dutch interior or Vermeer painting?

I could have chosen almost any Dutch canvas of the mid 17th century to launch my exploration of the global connections that were reshaping the world. The Dutch were producing and consuming oil paintings at an unprecedented rate to decorate their homes and these paintings regularly included signs of the places into which Dutch merchants were trading, especially China. I chose Officer and Laughing Girl somewhat perversely, perhaps, to defy any obvious China connection. I could have started with a painting showing a piece of export porcelain, but that would have been too easy. So I start Vermeer’s Hat instead with a beaver hat, not a Chinese dish, to make the journey from Europe to China a bit more difficult, and hopefully a bit more interesting. The hat appeals to my Canadian identity, since the fur that went into making it came from Canada, but it suits the larger story I want to tell, which is the passage of people and things across the globe through the ever expanding networks of exchange that linked Europe to China.

In the past decades, art historians have concentrated great attention on the iconographic interpretation of Vermeer's painting even though there exists an extremely limited amount of period writings to support this investigation. What concrete evidence of globalization do we find in Vermeer's paintings?

Vermeer painted with a rich knowledge of the iconography of his age—as did most Dutch painters of the time. Woman Holding a Balance, for example, is animated by the iconography of the virgin; and The Allegory of Faith is busy with Biblical references, without which it makes no sense. But that is not what first catches my attention in Vermeer’s paintings. What I look for are the many signs of the world beyond Holland that figure in his canvasses: not obscure icons but simple objects. They figure quietly—Vermeer never puts the spotlight on foreign exotica, and in fact includes far fewer exotica than most of his contemporaries—but such objects are there. The fact that we don’t at first notice them, and have to take second looks to discover them, serves my narrative purpose, which is to let the story of globalization unfold gradually to the reader. The things I notice, such as the colour and size of the coins in Woman Holding a Balance, are not what interest most art historians. I accept their potential symbolism as tokens of virtuous merit, or sins that must be weighed. But I am looking at Vermeer with a different intent. And I hope my perspective provides my readers with some intriguing surprises.

Globalization, why the Dutch? What edge did they have on their competition?

The Dutch have ended up dominating the book in a way I did not initially intend. But I quickly realized that, in my chosen period from 1600 to 1650, they were the newest and most dynamic world travellers. Had I chosen a different half-century, the leading actors in the story would have been from somewhere else: the Portuguese in the first half of the 16th century, perhaps, the Spanish in the second half, the English at a later date. Choosing the Dutch was a matter of timing: the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was formed in 1602 and through the first half-century of its existence established many of the institutions and practices that still shape global trade. There may be cultural reasons for the sudden eruption of the Dutch into the world, but I think this eruption has more to do with the success of their struggle for independence from Spanish domination and the zeal of their Protestant revolt against the established Church. But what really transformed the Netherlands was the explosion of wealth, a significant portion of which came from Asian trade.

China was an important trading "partner" of the Dutch in the Far East. The Dutch, and the whole European continent, were fascinated by the exotic styles and perfect facture of Chinese porcelain. These imports rapidly became sources for imitation and inspiration for new designs back home in the Netherlands and became a permanent part of Dutch cultural history. What did the Chinese import and which artistic, cultural or political effect did it stimulate?

The exchange between Europe and China went in two directions, yet it was unequal. Chinese manufacturers produced a range of fine goods that excelled anything that European artisan could make, notably porcelain and textiles, and overseas expansion disposed Europeans to look for and value such artefacts. European manufacturers did less well with their goods in China. Chinese consumers were less exposed to what Europeans could produce, and less inclined to pay high prices for foreign exotica. The item that dominated the offerings of European merchants was silver—which the Chinese melted down for their own uses. Europe had an impact on China in this period, but it took less concrete forms. It had to do with exposure to European ideas, such as the theory that the Earth was round ad not the centre of the universe, or that the idea that it was possible to accurately calculate the trajectory of a cannonball using geometry. Western goods—with the notable exception of opium in the 19th century—would not find a Chinese market until the 20th.

In this historical moment, how would you sum up the diverse cultural and political climates in the Netherlands and two of the most important clients, China and Japan?

I find political climates easier to characterize in a few words than cultural. The Netherlands was in a period of buoyant self-confidence and, except for a few vivid moments, politically stable. Ming China on the other hand was suffering a measure of fiscal crisis and political disarray, as eunuchs and bureaucratic factions competed for control of the court—until the invasion of the Manchus from southern Siberia destroyed the dynasty and for a time closed the borders. Japan was also closing its borders, as a new shogun family came to power and gradually consolidated its control over the islands. By 1640 the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed into Japan, and then only on one little island in Nagasaki harbour, and in restricted numbers. So as the Dutch were moving out aggressively into the world, the Chinese and Japanese, troubled at home, were retreating from dynamic interaction with foreigners. This mismatch favoured the imperialist aspirations of the West.

In much Vermeer writing of the past, Delft, where the artist lived all his life, is portrayed as a relatively insulated, conservative town in economic decline. Such an environment would have provided limited stimulus for such a powerful artist like Vermeer, aside from a few passing talented artists, like Carel Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch. Do you agree with this picture?

I see Delft very differently. Certainly it was not Amsterdam or Antwerp, but neither was it a mouldering backwater. I think the art is the best evidence. Had Vermeer been the only painter in Delft we could marvel at his uniqueness. But he wasn’t. He was part of a community of artists thriving in this commercial city in the 1650s, Carel Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch, in the first instance, but many others. There was de Hooch’s brother-in-law, Hendrik van der Burch, who painted very much in the Vermeer style; and "merry company" painter Jan Steen for as a long as he ran the brewery that paid for his art; and the flower painter Balthasar van der Ast, who sometimes used Chinese vases as the centerpieces of his paintings. Underpinning the prosperity and culture of Delft lay the wealth and power of the VOC. Among the cities hosting chambers of the company, Amsterdam was the giant, but after Amsterdam, Delft could hold it own with any of the second-tier cities, such as Rotterdam. It is only through the quietening of the city’s economy in the 18th century—when it could not boast of a single significant artist—that we now look back and see Delft as less than it was in the 17th century.

To what extent and in which manner do you believe the effects of an expanded world penetrated the Delft artistic and economic community as well as daily life of its citizens?

The wider world had a twofold presence in Delft life. There were first of all the export commodities that the VOC brought to the city and retailed to its citizens as prized possessions—and sufficiently prized that someone who commissioned a painting of his family or home usually asked that the painter include them in the picture. The other way in which the outside world made itself felt in Delft was in the form of the people who travelled and worked in that world and either sent home news of their exploits by letter (Vermeer liked to paint women reading letters) or returned, some with wealth and others not, to regale friends and family with tall tales and firsthand knowledge. As I mention in Vermeer’s Hat, Vermeer’s cousin, Claes van der Minne, and Claes’ two sons worked in Southeast Asia for the VOC. The impact of these personal links is hard for the historian to detect and assess, but it was something that Delft citizens surely felt. How many went to Asia from this one city is impossible to reconstruct. We do know that close to a million Dutchmen made the sea-journey from Holland to Asia during the two centuries from 1595 to 1795, when the VOC was closed down. Some of them went from Delft, and some of those came back.

What similarities and differences do you see between the infancy of globalization and today's globalization?

Between the dawn of globalization and our own age stretches a wealth of time and experience that is difficult to summarize easily. Certainly there are differences in degree over these four centuries. Today more people travel the globe, consume imported goods, and learn foreign languages than was true in the 17th century. The scale of globalization since the 1980s has been so overwhelming that we tend to think we inhabit a world that is qualitatively different, and in many ways we do. Nuclear power, environmental degradation, the annihilation of species—the list of what the world must now contend with would have beggared the imagination in earlier times—and yet we tend to assume that earlier ages were unable to experience the world, as we do, as a single place. I tend to think otherwise. More people—and not just Europeans—were in motion, and more goods circulated in the holds of ships than we bother to remember. Global politics may have changed its modes and rules, but the global economy goes on. It is now bigger and more specialized, but the same principles of moving products from one place to markets in another, of having to negotiate how borders are crossed and differences moderated, were at work then as now. Taking a historical perspective, as I do, it seems to me that the main difference is scale.

Which do you believe are the primary negative and positive legacies of the globalization?

The world as it is experienced by most of us who check the Essential Vermeer website is a world that is open and transparent, a place we can traverse and see for ourselves: a global space that is endlessly available to us. For those who lived in the 17th century, however, the world was a more forbidding and dangerous place, and what it yielded into the hands of the few escaped the grasp of the many. The rich, now but even more so then, had access to labour and to better food and protection that made getting around the world easier and safer than what the poor could avail themselves of. The rich were also in a better position to accumulate wealth and enjoy what wealth can achieve than the poor. A few among the poor who scattered into the world found ways to catapult themselves into a degree of wealth and social advancement that they could never have achieved by staying at home. On most, however, fortune did not smile. Many disappeared from their lives back home through the usual happenstances of disease and shipwreck. As I stress in the book, however, some who did not return chose their fate, preferring to stay on in the places they found themselves rather than relive the poverty they had hoped to escape by leaving in the first place. If we shift our attention to the peoples the Europeans encountered, then the imbalance of globalization’s benefits is even more glaring. Some new objects and pleasures came into their hands—the global passion for tobacco is one of the stories I tell in Vermeer’s Hat—but too often they found themselves unprepared to face the weapons and diseases that the Europeans brought with them.

How was the idea of your book born and what was your methodological approach?

Vermeer’s Hat is premised on two ideas: that the immense separation between Europe and China began to diminish significantly for the first time in the 17th century, and that we can detect this change by looking for its telltale signs in paintings and writings at both ends of the Eurasian continent. These ideas took shape in the course of teaching world history to first-year undergraduates. My expertise is in Chinese history, but I took up the challenge of teaching world history in order to reveal the world from a different angle. I wanted to show students who may have never given China a second thought that the bits of world history they might know through school or cultural background are intimately woven into a complex fabric of connections that stretch all the way to the other side of the globe. I wanted them to be able to see what they might know about the history of their own culture as pieces of a puzzle that, once assembled, would reveal the history of the entire world. The idea of narrating this history through Dutch paintings came in a lecture I gave on the popularity of maps in the 17th century. I had Officer and Laughing Girl up on the screen in the lecture hall as an example of how Europeans liked to hang large maps on the walls of their houses, when I noticed by the oversized hat the solder was wearing. It struck me that the hat was an even better clue to the trends of the age than the map. The logic of Vermeer’s Hat suddenly fell into place. The hat was no longer just an object decorating a Dutch painting, but as a door opening onto the wider world that was not waiting to be discovered, but was there all along. Once we begin to view Vermeer’s paintings from this perspective, they reveal the world’s presence in 17th-century Delft in ways that may surprise us—but not, I think, Vermeer. This was his world, after all.

survey software

need + information?

poll initiated: march 12, 2014