13 January 2010

Tulip mania: Netherlands in the 1620s and 30s

With the Union of Utrecht in 1579, only the 7 Calvinist provinces to the north succeeded in gaining their independence from Spanish rule. Thus the north ie The United Provinces became independent and Protestant; the south ie Flanders remained Catholic and under Spanish rule. Dutch people elaborately celebrated their success in consolidating their Republic as a free, independent state. It was the first of the states created by means of a people's revolution against monarchical power in the early modern era. Peace was a gift from the Protestant God. Dutch trading companies founded colonies and profitable businesses, and banking and shipping boomed.

A BOSSCHAERT, Bouquet of flowers in a vase, 37 x 26 cm, 1621.
The Dutch East India Co, founded 1602, had a monopoly on all profits from trade east of the Cape of Good Hope including South Africa, India and Indonesia. Lisbon had been conquered by the Spanish so the Dutch had to find their own way to the East for spices. So the Dutch East India Co. went public and for 200 years ran a commercial empire more powerful than some countries.

The Dutch West India Company, founded 1621, was granted a charter for a trade monopoly in the Caribbean and was given jurisdiction over the African slave trade, Brazil and North America. The purpose of the charter was to eliminate competition, especially Spanish or Portuguese, b/w the various trading posts established by Dutch merchants. The company became instrumental in the Dutch colonisation of the Americas.

Commerce expanded so much that the Dutch Republic become the culturally and economically most flourishing country in Europe. A welfare system and public works were important expressions of Dutch civic government. Guild members and regents of charitable institutions were proud representatives of their Protestant, mercantile society. By early C17th, all Dutchmen were allowed to practise their religion freely. And it was to the Dutch that other Protestant cities looked for rebuilding. Dutch engineers, artists and designers spread all over Europe.

The cities’ canals and bridges were a source of huge civic pride. New roads were built, horse drawn public transport by barges started up, Bourses boomed, public clocks appeared all over the country and cities became clean. Street lighting became a model for other European cities. Fire fighting teams were developed and equipped. A civic medical board was set up in each city to license and supervise doctors. Windmills made it possible to raise the water level from the low lying land, and to mill flour and timber.

In the Dutch Republic there had few noble families, and the small Catholic Church in the north could not commission altar pieces. Worse still, for artists, Calvinist churches didn't tolerate lush ornamentation of their churches. So art commissions came from new sources: civic institutions, militia companies, charitable foundations, bankers and business people. Newly wealthy burghers enjoyed their new fortunes.

Tulips had long been growing in Constantinople. Then, in the 1560s, trade and diplomatic interaction with the Ottoman Empire allowed for a small number of tulips to be imported into Hapsburg Europe. In this early stage, tulip ownership was primarily limited to wealthy nobles and scholars. Antwerp, Brussels, Augsburg, Paris and Prague are among some of the cities where tulips first began to circulate. Tulip cultivation in the United Provinces probably started in 1593 when tulip bulbs were sent from Turkey by the Netherlandish ambassador.

Maria Oosterwijck, Flower Still Life, 1669

The most vividly coloured of the new tulips became exorbitantly priced. Only the wealthiest aristocrats and merchants could afford the variegated hybrid varieties. By the early 1630s, however, flower growers had begun to raise vast crops of more simply-coloured tulips. With the increasing number of varieties and the ever-widening price range, tulips became one of the few luxury goods that could be purchased by members of all classes.

Not everyone could afford these insanely high prices and many families were in any case opposed to gambling. One way to achieve the beauty of full blown floral bouquets in the home was to have an artist paint the floral image on canvas. The canvas could be hung in the reception area, opposite the front door, so that visitors would be impressed by the floral display.

The Dutch were in any case passionate about still life paintings in the C17th, especially serious botanical studies. And there might well have been a vanitas element eg Bosschaert’s tiny Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase 1621, combined with small animals and insects. A skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralising message on the ephemeral nature of sensory pleasures. Often some of the luscious fruits and flowers themselves would be starting to spoil, or bugs would crawling around.

Whether still-lifes had a moralising intent or were painted for the pure pleasure of displaying the talent of the artist and the wealth of a newly wealthy society, their message of beauty and natural content was understood. They were closely observed and beautifully painted. But it could also be argued that it was the national obsession with exotic flowers that made still lifes so highly sought after.

In 1623, a single bulb of a famous tulip variety could cost up to a thousand Dutch florins, 6 or 7 times the average yearly income. Tulips could be exchanged for land, homes or valuable livestock. If a family could afford a number bulbs, they would buy a pyramid-shaped vase to display each flower separately. Possibly this was not an exclusively Dutch preference; the multi-spout vases/bulb pots were popular in Holland, England, France and Germany, made from painted porcelain, delftware or bone china.

Maddy's Ramblings said that people abandoned jobs, businesses, wives, homes and lovers to become tulip growers. And even more so for royals. Austrian Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella were fine patrons of the arts, making Peter Paul Rubens their court painter in 1609. See their collector’s cabinet c1626 . Flowers were as important as paintings, rugs, musical instruments, sculptures and globes for their royal collection.

Tulip vase of Willem III, 1690s, blue-painted faience, 102cm

The record price reached for the sale of one bulb, the Semper Augustus, was 6,000 florins in Haarlem. By 1636, tulips were traded on the stock exchanges of many Dutch towns. This encouraged trading in tulips by all members of society, with many people selling or trading their other possessions in order to speculate in the tulip market. Some speculators made large profits as a result. As did advertisers.

Of course during Tulip-mania there were many who tried to stop or slow down the absurd speculation. Religious leaders, moralists and even the government warned their people against obsession with base secular concerns. Van Gogh's Chair blog cited a painting called A Satire of Tulip Mania by Jan Brueghel II c1640, definitely a scathing satire of human greed.

But the passion burned strongly. Because the flower-growers had to cultivate the bulbs and could not sell them until they were ready, flower sellers began selling promissory notes guaranteeing the future delivery of the tulip bulb. The buyers of these pieces of paper resold the notes at marked-up prices. Thus promissory notes changed hands from buyer to buyer until the tulip became ready for delivery. The key was to be able to resell the note before the tulip could be delivered; the unlucky gambler was the person who could no longer resell the note because he now owned the actual tulip.

Tulip speculation became so excessive that in 1637 the States of Holland passed a statute curbing the extremes, but the legislation failed. That year the market began to panic when people realised that tulips were not worth the prices people were paying for them. People began to sell as quickly as they could and in less than 6 weeks, tulip prices crashed by over 90%. The negative side of option leverage meant fortunes were lost. People who traded in farms and life savings for a tulip bulb were left holding a worthless plant seed. Many defaults occurred, where speculators couldn’t pay off their debts. Others were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now 10 times greater than those on the open market. Many Dutch gamblers were financially ruined. No court would enforce payment of a contract, since judges regarded the debts as contracted through gambling, and thus not enforceable in law.

The aftermath of the tulip price deflation and other events led to an economic chill throughout the Netherlands for years afterwards, resulting in an economic depression and harming Dutch commerce. But the tulip remained the much loved national floral emblem.  And floral still lifes with tulips still continued being painted long after the bubble burst and crashed.

The most serious analysis of the phenomenon was provided by Anne Goldgar, in Tulipmania: Money, Honour and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age. She argued that the phenomenon was limited to a smallish group of Dutch families. She believed that tulips were treated more like art, for which high-status people paid exorbitant prices in the pursuit of beauty. In other words, tulipmania might have been a social and cultural crisis for the young nation, not a financial one.

Anne Goldgar's book

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog  reviewed the House of Windjammer by VA Richardson (2003). Mike Dash wrote Tulipomania : The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower. Deborah Moggach wrote Tulip Fever and Anna Pavord wrote The Tulip. Investing Notes blog discussed the economic reasons behind the success and later failure of this speculative mania.


ChrisJ said...

In 1945, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands presented Canadians with 100,000 tulip bulbs in gratitude for her safe harbour in Canada and for Canada's efforts in liberating Holland in WWII.

It was quite a gift, but by the exchange standards of mid-1600s, it was gargantuan.

Alberti's Window said...

What a great post! Although I enjoy reading everything that you write, this might be one of my favorite posts (but you have to realize that I specialized in the colonial art from the 17th/18th centuries, so I'm terribly biased).

I think it's really interesting that the William III tulip vase is decorated with chinoiserie, and is even shaped in the form of a Chinese pagoda. Tulips were already connoted with exoticism by their origin, but that placing tulips in that vase would make the exotic connection unmistakable.

I'm teaching a class on chinoiserie in a few weeks. I think I'll have my students look at your blog to see this vase.

Hels said...

Andrew said...
I knew a little about the tulip boom and bust, but much more detail now. Well done.

Chris, M and Andrew,
this is a story that never ends. Apart from the gorgeous Dutch paintings and ceramics that survive from those days, I still want to know more and more about Dutch 17th century society. How did tiny Netherlands modernise before all other European societies?

I like Simon Schama's book, The Embarrassment of Riches 1987, very much.

Brian Hughes said...

"In 1623, a single bulb of a famous tulip variety could cost up to a thousand Dutch florins..."

Hence the expense, "That's bloomin' expensive!"

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Thanks so much for your visit and comment. Yes, I do think we share a similar taste in films. And in flowers, for I dearly love tulips. Especially the white ones!

Thanks for leading me to your lovely blog. I know I shall return often!

ramidonya said...

It is an extraordinary history, a more democratic and egalitarian society than we see anywhere else in western cultures until much, much later. Contemporary Dutch culture is more egalitarian than most, and less likely to accept showy displays of wealth or differentiation by class (at least this is what I learned from an anthropologist who specialized in that area). Also the highest population density in Europe, the lowest violent crime rate and fewest inmates per capita, and the tallest people! The rise of a merchant class, early, and freedom from monarchy may be the dominant reasons for the early "modernization"; I'm quite sure the religious structure and belief system must also have suited these developments. It's a fascinating subject. AND the still-lifes are so stunning!

Lights 2 Flag said...

Hels - a very interesting post. You have to ask yourself if speculators nowadays, for example in the Dubai property market, could have learned something by studying what happened with the tulips several centuries earlier...

It is interesting that you write that in Holland people were able to freely practice their religion.

By contrast, I have just written a post on my Kent Today & Yesterday blog about Bloody Mary and her treatment of protestansts in my local area in the 1550's.



Picture of Elegance Blog said...

Fascinating post. Thank you for sharing.

Hels said...

Brian, :) I wonder if that pun would work in non-British or non-English speaking countries.

Pamela, ramidonya, Glen and Picture,

17th century Dutch society is certainly my ideal model of a modern, moral community that avoided indecent displays of wealth and demonstated caring for the orphans and widows.

Perhaps the religious structure and belief system might have been stifling for non-believers, but I agree that they must also have promoted modernisation and community caring.

Hasan Prishtina said...

"Many Dutch gamblers were financially ruined."

You are right that Goldgar's book is by far the most thoroughly researched book on the subject. Yet she was unable to find a single person who was bankrupted as a direct result of trading in tulips, the losses being taken by people who, by and large, could comfortably afford them.

Do you know something she doesn't?

Hels said...


thanks for your comment. I haven't read the book in the last 2.5 years and I don't have my own copy. So from what I recall, Goldgar said the tulip crash was a total disaster alright, but not a necessarily a financial disaster. Other economic historians vigorously disagreed of course.

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Hels said...


thank you. Have you read the Mike Dash book, Tulipomania : The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower?

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Museum Van Loon said...

British artist Gavin Turk curates an exhibition at Museum Van Loon based around the country’s iconic flower as a symbol of exploration, trade and migration. 'Turkish Tulips', on display from 3 March until 29 May 2017, connects Amsterdam’s Van Loon family to contemporary art.

The Van Loon family were heavily involved in trading with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Gavin Turk’s latest work explores this trade route and its effect on immigration, globalisation and other topics that resonate with audiences today. His works are supplemented by pieces from renowned international artists including Sir Peter Thomas Blake, Fiona Banner and Damien Hirst.