Jan Brueghel the Elder, scion to an eminent Flemish dynasty of painters, was doing well in his day. On an equal footing with Peter Paul Rubens – both men used to work conjointly on paintings at times – Flower Brueghel, as he was aptly called, was one of the leading painters at the turn of the 17th century. But why should this be of interest to us? Still lifes, especially from these days, are not precisely at the core of the contemporary interest in art. More so, one encounters them rather by chance, perhaps in a museum having taken a wrong turn on one’s way to the collection of classical modernism. Should this have happened to you, it is conspicuous that tulips were a recurring theme at the time. Here is the reason why:
The beginning of the 17th century saw the formation of the first well-documented speculative bubble in the history of mankind. In those days, speculation was not focused on spices, real estate or similar desirables, but indeed tulip bulbs. In the Netherlands, just ten tulip bulbs had a value equivalent to what a family of four needed for half a lifetime. Until the speculative bubble burst in a surprising fashion, as is the common course. Jan Brueghel the Elder did not live to see this happen, but his son did, who, compliant with tradition, carried on his father’s name and profession. Jan Brueghel the Younger became known for his painting Satire on Tulip Mania. By displaying monkeys, a common Renaissance metaphor for human greed and stupidity, the 1640’s artwork was a pointed comment on the tulip crisis.
In those days, the art of horticulture was perceived as a decorous and prestigious pastime of the top ten thousand. The tulip, then an exotic and desirable flower from the Far East, was esteemed to be the greatest decorative flower in any garden. The first European growers often knew each other personally. They supported one another, shared their knowledge and traded bulbs, both within countries and across borders. Only as the network grew, the idea of trading tulip bulbs for money was put into practice, but consequently the system became more fragile. The increasing demand for tulips was also fueled by the overcapitalization of vast parts of the population. With the Netherlands being the richest country in Europe at the time, many Dutch people simply had too much money to spend. Paradoxically, bulbs afflicted by a virus (unbeknownst to people) were traded at a particularly high price. Their leaves showed unique patterns, which were considered so chic that at the height of events, the value of one single bulb could increase tenfold in a day. Eventually, tulip bulbs were used as a substitute for money. At the beginning of the 1630’s a townhouse in Amsterdam was dealt for five tulip bulbs, if only it was sufficiently impressive, of course. When the euphoria reached broad sections of society, the hype briefly accelerated once more, until it crashed in the winter of 1636/37 without warning. People lost astounding amounts of money. The discussion about the created debt kept the country on tenterhooks for many years to come.
It is possible to relate this story (which is further discussed in Mike Dash’s Tulipomania) to more recent events associated with cryptocurrency, and to read it as a warning reminder or didactic play. However, this has already been done extensively, and there is more to discover.
Astonishingly, the Dutch have not lost their interest in flowers over time, not in the arts or the economy. Tulips remain one of the leading export commodities; fields are filled with flowers as far as the eye can see – a sight world-renowned on account of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.
Another lesson to be learned from this story (but also, for instance, from the early days of the internet) then is, that the initial euphoria requires a turning point, so that something truly substantial can emerge.
Chances are, the cryptocurrency hype will end abruptly yet temporarily, and the still life, a symbol of transience, will undergo a renaissance in the near future. (Full disclosure in final note form: The author of this text owns both tulip bulbs and still lifes depicting tulips.)
Blog: Dirk Dobiéy
Translation: Vivian Kolster, Stephanie Barnes
Picture Sources: Jan Philips van Thielen – Roses and a Tulip in a Glass Vase, Quelle: NGA.gov
Jan von Brueghel the Younger. – Satire on Tulip Mania. Quelle Wikimedia Commons
Vincent van Gogh – Flower Beds in Holland. Quelle: NGA.gov
Claude Monet – Tulip Fields in Holland. Quelle: Wikimedia Commons
Franzconde – Tulip fields in Zuidschermer, North Holland, The Netherlands. Quelle: Wikimedia Commons