Chinese robes and Native Americans

the book:

Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook

published 2008  chapter 2    the early 1600s

The chief of the Winnebagoes invited Jean Nicollet to be his guest at a great feast of welcome. When he presented himself before the thousands who came great distances to attend the feast he hosted in his honour, he wore the finest item he had in his baggage: a Chinese robe embroidered with flowers and birds….

There was no way that an up-country agent such as Nicollet acquired this garment on his own. He would not have had access to such a thing, let alone the money to buy it. The robe must have been Champlain’s. But how did Champlain acquire it? Only in the early years of the 17th century were curiosities of this sort starting to make their way from China to northern Europe…

The likely origin was a Jesuit missionary in China, who brought or sent it back to Europe as a testimonial of the cultured civilization to which he had devoted his life. The English traveller John Evelyn saw a set of Chinese robes in Paris, and marvelled at them. They were “glorious vests, wrought and embroidered on clothe of Gold, but with such lively colours, as for splendour and vividness we have nothing in Europe approaches.”


observations: Samuel Champlain was trying to reach China by travelling across North America. Jean Nicollet was his ‘woodland runner… infiltrating the interior and operating extensive networks of trade.’ Champlain hoped that there was a chain of rivers and lakes to take him across the continent. He ended up with a monopoly on the fur trade, he made maps, and he initiated a wave of encounters with Native Americans – seen as a ’turning point… in the history of the European-Native relationship.’

This fascinating non-fiction book has a concept that is simultaneously brilliant, simple, and hard to explain. The author – an expert on Chinese history – takes as his starting point five paintings by Vermeer, two by his contemporaries, and a porcelain dish. Timothy Brook uses these pieces to look at the way the world worked in the 17th century, and specifically travel and trade, the way that various features in the pictures arrived there – from silver to a black boy, from hats to maps. The result is rivetingly informative.

With thanks to JS for the book.

Links up with: The fascination with Chinese robes continued into the 20th century -
here and here and here.

The picture is of a man’s formal court robe from the Qing Dynasty, and is in the Indianapolis
Museum of Art.