How simple and benign a porcelain dish may seem in a seventeenth century Dutch painting. An object of beauty and luxury? Sure. But the key into an entire world of embattled nations, global cultural shifts, and an emblem of a growing international economy? Seems like a lot to pin on a single item, yet Timothy Brook manages to do this sevenfold in his 2008 book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. In each chapter of this fast paced nonfiction account of cultural, economic, and art history, Brook uses single works of art, mostly by Johannes Vermeer, as jumping off points to discuss broad phenomena and the rippling effect of globalization. Doubling down on specificity, in each chapter Brook hones in on an individual item within a painting, using it as a talisman to the dawn of the global age. One such object is the blue and white porcelain fruit dish in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window from 1658. I first encountered Brook’s book in a graduate art history seminar on import/export porcelain which investigated the international development of the ubiquitous blue and white china. My class was assigned the chapter in Brook’s book that examined the porcelain plate, which spurred endless engaging discussions. Immediately needing more, I purchased Vermeer’s Hat and devoured chapters on the fur trade, the migration and internationalization of people, and the importation of silver, all by the way of works of art. Brook, a historian and sinologist, offered our group of young art historians a new perspective from which to analyze paintings. If you have ever believed that works of art could be a window into a world, I invite you to let this book expand your mind. Brook proves that you do not have to stand in passivity gazing through a window like the girl reading a letter, instead, you can fling open endless doors and travel headlong into the world of your chosen painting following crumbs left by the artist.
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Paige Moreau is the Courses Coordinator at the Museum School.