Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Last year, as part of the European Reading Challenge I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring since the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s fictional account of a young woman’s encounter with Dutch painter Vermeer is Holland. This time around, for the European Reading Challenge I’ve selected another book in which Holland, and especially Vermeer takes center stage. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is yet another one of those books I kept seeing on the self at the library yet never grabbed. However, last week or so I finally grabbed it. After finishing after a series of fits and starts I asked myself if I liked it. Honestly, I’m really not sure. 

According to Brook, what we now call globalization, began clear back in the seventeenth century. International trade, consumption of foreign goods, sweeping cultural shifts and global conflict began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate during Vermeer’s lifetime.  In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook breaks down several of Vermeer’s paintings, in addition to two other pieces of art not by Vermeer but from that era to illustrate his points. For instance, the officer depicted in the painting Officer and Laughing Girl wears a stylish beaver pelt hat, signifying not only the growing wealth of Holland’s merchant class but also the lucrative beaver trade in North America. To Brook, the young woman in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is quite possibly reading a letter from male relative, spouse or similar loved one who’s off seeking his fortune overseas with an entity like the Dutch East India Company. The globe shown front and center in The Astronomer epitomizes an expansive and rapidly unfolding world, much in the way the anchored ship in View of Delft is evidence of Holland’s growing participation in international trade.

By using examples from the art world to trace the evolution of early globalism, Brook has taken on an ambitious project. While it looks like some readers have compared Vermeer’s Hat to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses to me it reminded me a lot of John E. Wills’s 1688: A Global History and David Fromkin’s The Way of the World. But in the end, I’m not sure this ambitious project completely satisfied me. Sometimes I found Vermeer’s Hat a bit dry for my taste. Who knows, maybe I was just expecting too much. At least I received a nice history lesson. Can’t go wrong with that.

4 thoughts on “Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

  1. I hopped over from the Nonfiction Challenge reviews page.

    This is a time period I want to explore this year, although more from the English perspective (in advance of a hoped-for trip to England this fall). I like the idea of tying art into the history, though.


    • Excellent! Glad you’ve been spending a bit of time on the Nonfiction Challenge page.
      Speaking of challenges, I see just like me you’ve also signed up for the British History Challenge. Best of luck to you in your pre-journey reading quest!!


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