Vermeer's Hat, By Timothy Brook

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The Independent Culture

The way that Timothy Brook teases out trade routes, struggles for power and the delicate dance of international relations from an image of a hat or a china bowl is truly mesmerising. In this accessible but authoritative study, he relies on five paintings by Vermeer (and Girl with a Pearl Earring isn't one of them) for his history of the Dutch reach for global power, and shows, better than anyone I've read so far, the truly subversive power of detail – especially when it's brought to the fore instead of filling in the background.

For example, Officer and Laughing Girl and Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window foreground a hat and a china bowl respectively. Both are in shade, but they're in front of the women in both pictures. Brook alights on the hat that the officer is wearing to tell us that this piece of headwear is the latest in Dutch male fashion, made from beaver fur, not wool. Beaver pelt came from Canada, made available to Europe by the many incursions into Mohawk and Huron territory by the French, the British and the Dutch. And the reason that they were all in Canada was for the same reason that Christopher Columbus discovered America – they were actually trying to get to China.

China was the big goal, the fabled land of riches, and at the beginning of the 17th century, it was believed that sailing west would get you there. Brook shows the transition from the bloody conflicts of the 16th century to the negotiations of the 17th, the age, as he calls it, "of improvisation", a "century of second contacts". In Vermeer's paintings, we can see the evidence of this reach to other lands and what was brought back, what became part of our own lifestyles. And details that we probably didn't think told us very much, suddenly tell us everything.