Open to Words

Svetlana Alpers

  • Vermeer’s Hat: The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook
    Profile, 272 pp, £18.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84668 112 7

Timothy Brook’s subject in Vermeer’s Hat is the ‘global world’ of the 17th century. Brook is a historian of China who wants to consider the lure of China for others. The dream of China, he argues, is the imaginative thread that runs through the history of early modern Europe’s struggle to reach the wider world; he admires the energy and drive of the Europeans who devised means to do this. The tone is generally upbeat despite the fact that the tales he tells of foreign adventures involve conflict, danger, disaster and death. Believing as he does in the virtues of the global – now as much as then – he sees an essential difference between China and the Netherlands. On this account, China regrettably kept itself closed to the outside, partly in order to defend its skills and accomplishments and also to protect the honour of its past. The Netherlands, by contrast, was open. Dutch ships, supported by new technology and newly invented entities like the joint-stock trading corporation called the Dutch East India Company, sailed across dangerous oceans. They did this less to settle than for the promise of trade and profit. And the strange foreign goods they brought back were eagerly taken up by a growing consumer economy.

What Brook describes as Europe’s escape from what I would describe as isolation takes off from the withdrawn, inward-turning paintings of Johannes Vermeer. How did Vermeer get mixed up in this? How did an artist who withdrew into a room in his house in Delft to paint become a way for Brook to go global? (It should be mentioned that in addition to Vermeer two other painters, Hendrik van den Burgh and Leonaert Bramer, also make an appearance here.) Brook’s answer is to say, well, I’m not really interested in Vermeer’s paintings as such, but rather in the objects he depicted in them: like the herring boats moored on the right in the View of Delft, and the stretch of red roof on the left; or the hat, providing Brook’s title and jacket image, worn by the shadowed soldier in the foreground courting the distant, sunlit, smiling woman in Officer and Laughing Girl in the Frick Collection. Though Brook has read much of the literature on Vermeer and has obviously looked at and cares for the paintings, the book is designed to take off from certain objects which serve as ‘doors’, as he refers to them, to the larger world beyond. It is a great virtue that Brook is so clear about the use he wants to make of the paintings. Despite that, some questions about Vermeer as well as about the writing of history emerge along the way.

The herring boats open a door to an industry made newly profitable for the Netherlands as a result of global cooling, and the red roof marks the local chamber of the enterprising Dutch East India Company. The hat, it turns out, is made of felt produced from the under-fur of beavers. And at the date of the painting, 1658 or so, the beavers would have come from Canada, which became a source for the fur after the depletion of the European beaver stock. It was a boom time for beaver-felt hats: the new supply had resulted in a surge in demand and so in the price of hats in Europe. The talk of Vermeer’s hat and New World beaver fur opens into an extensive account of the adventures of Samuel Champlain, the French cartographer, explorer and adventurer, who discovered the beavers on an expedition canoeing through Canada in a vain attempt to find a north-west passage to China. A great pleasure of the book lies in the several stories like this that Brook tells. Here is a passage describing Champlain facing down some Mohawk warriors:

There had been four lead balls in the chamber of Champlain’s arquebus. At a distance of 30 metres there was no guarantee that even one would find its mark, but somehow three of them did. When the three Mohawk chiefs fell, two of them dead on the spot, the warriors behind them froze in shock. A shout of jubilation went up behind Champlain. His allies’ cry was ‘so loud that one could not have heard it thunder’. Champlain needed this confusion, as it took a full minute to reload an arquebus, during which time he was exposed to return fire from the other side. Before the attackers had time to recover, one of the two French arquebusiers Champlain had sent into the woods fired at their flank through the trees. The shot, reports Champlain, ‘astonished them again. Seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took flight, abandoning the field and their fort, and fleeing into the depth of the forest.’

The writing is informed, evocative, grips the attention. The chapter concludes by returning to Vermeer’s hat by way of the wintry death of Huron Indian children at a site now called Christian Island. Brook, a Canadian who summers on the island, writes:

I cannot walk the dappled path that angles past the place where the children are buried without thinking back to the starvation winter of 1649-50, marvelling at the vast web of history that ties this hidden spot to global networks of trade and conquest that came into being in the 17th century. The children are lost links in that history, forgotten victims of the desperate European desire to find a way to China and a way to pay for it, tiny actors in the drama that placed Vermeer’s hat on the officer’s head.

This first-person account strikes a different note from the confidence in expansion that drives the stories Brook tells in the third person. Brook’s confidence comes from a conviction that European global reach is a good thing. It is supported by the buoyancy inherent in a narrative historical practice that tends to put a forward-leaning spin on things. Yet, his reflection about the Indian children as forgotten victims of a desperate European desire makes us uncertain just what kind of account of the global world he is giving. What then is real? In what form do we give an account of it? The issue is raised in the chapter that follows. The object in view here is the china bowl tipped on its edge that is spilling fruit onto the table in Vermeer’s painting of a Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The letter may have no words on it, the lover is fictional, and the objects in the picture have been artfully positioned, but, Brook comments, ‘the world is real, and that is what we are in pursuit of.’

The door that opens from the china bowl in the Vermeer household leads to a vivid account of the Dutch quest for Chinese porcelain. We are made eyewitnesses to the 1613 battle involving Dutch, English and Portuguese cargo ships off the island of St Helena and to the greater national conflicts of which they were part. In addition, we are offered an education in the nature of chinaware and the new shapes necessary to allow for foreign (as opposed to Chinese) eating habits. But back to Vermeer’s bowl itself. In what respect are stories that take off from it and are told by the historian more real, more in touch with ‘reality’, than a painting?

The most haunting tale Brook tells takes off from the large silver coin on the table before Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. It is a tale of the South China Sea. He suggests that the silver for the coin might well have come from Potosí, the fabled Spanish mine in Peru. China was the world’s major market for silver and much of it got there by way of Spanish Manila in the Philippines. In the mix of great wealth, greed, mistreated workers, death and silver that was Manila in the early 17th century, there is more than a little of the world – economic and also human – set forth by Joseph Conrad in Nostromo (1904), a novel circling about a fictional South American silver mine, and bound up with international politics and finance. Vermeer’s Hat shows that something like the world Conrad describes was in place centuries before. The novel is a reminder that there are different modes in which reality can be explained. Any explanation is presented in one mode or another: there is no unmediated way.

Towards the end of the silver chapter we are brought back to Vermeer’s painting. Brook says that the woman preparing to weigh her coins is ‘untroubled by the frenzy of acquisition and conflict that silver was fuelling in the wider world’. This is absolutely true. Indeed, to my eyes, Brook’s emphasis on the Dutch in the world has the effect of making Vermeer’s paintings strange as paintings in ways I hadn’t realised. It isn’t simply that he took the domestic space to be his studio. What is remarkable is that living in Delft, at a time and in a town that was opening to a new world, Vermeer resolutely withdrew into a domestic studio, focusing his attention on what he saw and on the working of paint on canvas. Brook’s talk of objects in paintings as doors that lead out into the world makes it all the more noticeable that the rooms Vermeer painted, with one or maybe two exceptions, have no doors. One might compare Vermeer in this respect to Pieter de Hooch, a contemporary of his in Delft, who took pictorial delight in doorways. In addition, again with one exception, no window Vermeer painted is ever fully open.

This is not to say that Vermeer leaves the world out of pictorial consideration. Rather, he was one of the first in a great line of European painters – think of Matisse or Picasso – who took the studio itself as the world. In a painting by Vermeer the world is dealt with in the very manner in which he depicts people and things in paint (through the position of a finger, the disposition of bracing light or erasing shadow, the clarity of edge). Under such studio constraints, it is curious to see how Vermeer depicted the figure of History in The Art of Painting. A woman dressed up to be Clio poses before a great printed map of the Netherlands that is signed by the painter. History is something that is mapped and described, but there are no stories. Brook’s account makes me think that the global world was one of the conditions for all of this.

Although Vermeer seems an unlikely artist to look to for a discussion of global culture, it’s worth noting that there is nothing unusual about the turn to Vermeer. In recent years a number of people who are not art historians have written about Vermeer’s paintings, or about things that are not found in them or that, it is argued, he left out. In the face of Vermeer’s careful avoidance of narrative suggestions, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring invented a romance about Vermeer and his household as told by the girl in the painting known by that name. Lawrence Weschler wrote Vermeer in Bosnia after having been in the Hague, where he passed from the inhumane violence presented at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to what he refers to as the ‘peace-filledness’ and the ‘condition of being a unique individual human being’ offered by the girl in that very painting which hangs nearby in the Mauritshuis. In an essay titled ‘Conspicuous Exclusion in Vermeer’, Harry Berger proposed instead that Vermeer practises a pictorial version of pastoral that involves elaborately evading the claims of the world even as he makes us attend to what has been left out. It is evident that in each case a certain culture and training – whether that of a historian of China, a novelist, an American journalist/ writer or a literary critic – inflects how a person writes about Vermeer. That might be said of the writing on any artist. Why then are Vermeer’s paintings written about so often? What is it about his paintings that makes them appear to be so open to words?