Teaching Digital History

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Learning history with Vermeer's Hat

Timothy Brook's recent book Vermeer's hat: The seventeenth century at the dawn of the global world is a remarkable exploration of history through the lens of art. Brook's uses paintings by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer as a window on a range of topics, many related to Singapore- his own area of specialty. As a work of pedagogy, which is some ways all books are, Vermeer's hat stands out as unique. From his work, there seems to be an opportunity to distill a method. Perhaps we could call is History through the window of art. Below, I summarize Brook's treatment of one of Vermeer's paintings and discuss how this painting might be central in K-12 investigations of certain world history topics.

One of the images that Brook's analyzes (also appears on the book's dust jacket cover) is Officer and a laughing girl. This image of the painting comes from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/

Brooks uses the book as a point of departure for a number of interesting historical explorations. For example, Brooks notes that the depiction of this officer sitting at a table in (presumably) the young girl's home was representative of a new and emerging cultural custom in Europe. The painting was set in Dutch town of Delft, and was completed in 1660, a time when cultural expectations about how and where men and women engaged one another were changing. Just fifty years prior, a meeting such as the one illustrated in Office and a laughing girl would have not likely to occurred outside a brothel. Brooks suggests that the painting is instead a more innocent courtship.

In his presentation of the painting at essentialvermeer.com, Johnathan Jassen leaves the question of open saying, "Was the picture a veiled boordeltjez (little brothel) or was it a representation of a tête`-à-tête between a gentleman officer and a virtuous mistress."

Brooks departs from the painting on numerous other angles, but none as rich as his venture from the map hanging on the wall in the background. Using the painting both literally and as a metaphor for an unknown world, Brooks explores the history of Samuel de Champlain's campaigns against the various indigenous tribes of the St Lawrence River area. Notice that the in the map, the colors are reversed with the oceans in brown earth tones and the land in blue. Brooks suggests this play by Vermeer was a symbolic recognition of the uncertainty of geography at the time and likewise depicts Champlain's ventures as guided by geographic uncertain.

The most deliberate treatment of historical content provided by Brooks comes with his exploration of the officer's hat. Brooks talks about his use of the hat a a vehicle to explore global trade in the 17th century.

"It struck me that the hat was an even better clue to the trends of the age than the map. The logic of Vermeer’s Hat suddenly fell into place. The hat was no longer just an object decorating a Dutch painting, but as a door opening onto the wider world that was not waiting to be discovered, but was there all along. Once we begin to view Vermeer’s paintings from this perspective, they reveal the world’s presence in 17th-century Delft in ways that may surprise us—but not, I think, Vermeer. This was his world, after all" (from an interview at http://www.essentialvermeer.com/).

Brooks discusses the recent fad for felt hats in Deltf such as the one the officer is wearing in the painting, and explains that the felt for these hats came from beavers in Canada through a complex systems of interconnecting relationships between Native Americans, the Dutch, the French, and others. Brooks expands these explorations by carefully examining the connections between Delft and the outside world by examining the complex networks of trade and business across the globe in places such as China and Peru.

For teachers, the painting can be a jumping off point or a pedagogical window of sorts to launch an exploration of history, geography, economics and government.

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