Pirates, officers, and high art abound in 'Vermeer's Hat'

An intelligent, creative new history by Timothy Brook explores the art of Johannes Vermeer – and by extension, the sprawling canvas of the 17th century.

Still lifes always struck me as kind of boring – just a bunch of fruit piled in a bowl. Clearly, my powers of observation are lacking. Historian Timothy Brook takes one piece of porcelain in a painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and uses it to explain 17th-century trade with China, with forays into piracy and the laws of the sea in his intelligent, creative new history, "Vermeer's Hat."

The 17th century, Brook argues, was the beginning of global interconnection. "People were now regularly arriving from elsewhere and departing for elsewhere," carrying with them objects never before seen there. The Dutch, with their East India Company, were at the heart of global trade in the 1600s, and Brook turns Vermeer's intimate scenes into huge landscapes detailing that world. In the book's best chapter, the felt hat worn in "Officer and Laughing Girl," made from beaver fur, takes us all the way to North America, where French explorers decimated native populations as a side effect in their search for a Northwest Passage. Brook's wide-ranging interests in both art and history carry the less erudite reader along with him, making one instantly forgive him for pretentious questions like "What do we see?" (Well, a bunch of typeface, actually.) Readers will never look at a Vermeer – or a soup plate – the same way again. Grade: A-

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