Details in the noted Dutch artist’s paintings lead readers through doorways into the period when the world was becoming increasingly interconnected.
Brook (Chinese Studies/Oxford Univ.; Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China, 2005, etc.) begins several decades ago, when he crashed his bicycle near Delft. This happy accident led to his initial viewing of Vermeer’s grave in a local church, and eventually to this book. The author’s narrative strategy is effective and illuminating. He first discusses Vermeer’s View of Delft, directing attention to the roofline of the Dutch East India Company—from which Brook advances the interesting story of the company’s history and its major role in early globalization. The eponymous chapter, perhaps the book’s strongest, uses Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl to describe and analyze the North American beaver trade. The officer sports a large hat made of felt, which was manufactured from the beaver’s underfur. Brook enriches the scene with background material on relations between indigenous North Americans and the rapacious invaders, which inevitably led to bloodshed. (A graphic description of a ritual torture makes rough reading.) Subsequent chapters range over vast geographical and cultural terrain, examining objects and people in paintings by Vermeer and a few contemporaries, stressing throughout their global implications. In such fashion, we learn much—occasionally too much—about Chinese porcelain, Delft pottery, globes, Jesuits and Dominicans in China, the differences between Chinese and European soups, the tobacco and opium trades, African slavery, the emergence of silver as the most desired metal and the spread of prized objects around the shrinking globe.
A magic-carpet conducted by a genial, learned host.