Springtime: with tulips in full bloom, a look back to think of The Tulip Bubble in the 1630’s as one of the first significant financial crises of the modern era. Economists still speculate how damaging it really was - but from an art historian’s point of view- there is only a bright side: art blossomed.

The flower so commonly associated with Holland is actually not a native Dutch plant. It was introduced from the Ottoman Empire in 1593 by humble botanist Carolus Clusius (1526- 1609). He initially researched the flowers to investigate their medical properties. Over time he realised the aesthetic potential of the flowers and discovered a particularly interesting feature (300 years later recognised as a virus), which he called 'tulips breaking'. This resulted in flamed and feathered petals. Things got terribly out of hand when Clusius’ neighbours broke into his garden, stole the bulbs and released them on to the open market.

The timing was just right. Dutch society actively traded with the Far East, imported exotic objects were in the height of fashion, new fortunes sprung up and the nouveau riche wanted to show off with their status through the acquisition of these rare and beautiful discoveries.

Figure 2: Satire on Tulip Mania
Oil on Canvas, Jan Breughel the Younger, ca 1640, Frans Hals Museum, The Netherlands
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In seventeenth century Europe, the apogee of success was to be perceived by others as learned. A cabinet of curiosities was one of the means that gave the owner those curatorial credentials. Collecting tulips was considered as culturally significant as collecting art, exotic taxidermy and minerals. This culture of display dominated the seventeenth century upper classes. At some point, when the prices of tulips were at their peak, tulip bulbs were displayed alongside these curios as they were simply too valuable to plant!

In the midst of the tulip craze a single Semper Augustus bulb would reach the price of 10 average yearly salaries: a sum which was comparable to the price of a house in Amsterdam. There were instances of desperate tulip collectors, who bankrupted themselves in the pursuit of their quarry. Determined to snatch the best bulbs, they bartered using private belongings in return. One bill from the early seventeenth century lists (among other items) a bed, a complete suit of clothes and one thousand pounds of cheese in return for a rare bulb.

Figure 3: Gouda tulip bulb prices in guilders.
In the background- The Viceroy- one of the most expensive specimens depicted in a Dutch catalogue from 1637.
A single bulb reached 3.000-4.200 guilders.
A yearly salary of a skilled craftsman equalled approximately 300 guilders.

With such outrageous prices, the purchase of a painting depicting expensive tulips actually became cheaper than buying a single bulb. Still life studies had long been a favoured subject in Holland. Loaded with rich symbolic meaning they were both an aesthetic pleasure and a provided moral lessons. Widely opened tulips represent Vanitas, transience of life and beauty. The flowers shown in the same painting would rarely have bloomed at the same time in a year, so having an image with all of these blossoms in one place would be a rare and coveted thing.

Figure 4: Still Life of Mixed Flowers in a Glass Vase
Ca 1717 Netherlands, 80.64 x 64.13 cm
Courtesy of Timothy Langston Fine Art, London
The famous red and white Semper Augustus is included in the design.

At the time of the tulip craze, special porcelain blue and white pottery tulip vases were produced in Delft. Known as pyramid vases, they originated in the Netherlands, where the local craftsmen attempted to copy Chinese designs giving them a new form. Over time the production moved to China where ready products were sent back to Europe by the East India Company. Interestingly these tulip vases often served as display pieces rather then actual flower vessels.

Figure 5: Tulip Vases with the arms of Wilhelm III, 1690.
Blue painted faience, both ca 100 cm height,
Royal Collection, Hampton Court
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In her book Tulipmania: Money, Honour, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, Anne Goldgar stresses that the tulip crisis most acutely affected not the Dutch economy but the relations between buyers and sellers. The tulip trade required considerable degree of trust as the bulbs had to spend most of the year planted in the ground. The buyer only finalised the transaction when the flower emerged. So when the market crashed, many of them simply failed to pay up.

Contemporary pamphlets spread panic about the upset of the social order, giving as an example the Haarlem weavers forsaking their looms (Haarlem was a huge centre of textile industry). It is very likely they were inspired by the Protestant preachers condemning building wealth on speculation rather than hard work. The tulip breeders were in fact solid citizens: from craftsmen to merchants in their day-to-day life. Tulips were only side projects to their activities. Moreover, after 1637 many of them continued trading flowers. Similarly- tulip related art continued to flourish.

Nevertheless, from today’s perspective when we look back at the Tulipmania, we shake our heads and wonder how on earth all of this was possible. Remembering mistakes of the past does not make us any wiser. Today speculations with Internet domains or the bitcoin craze make some economists raise their eyebrows. The former president of the Dutch Central Bank, Nout Wellink, told students at the University of Amsterdam that the hype around bitcoin "is worse than the Tulipmania. At least then you got a tulip [at the end], now you get nothing."


Cover Image: Semper Augustus
Page from an early 17th century tulip catalogue
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