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Tulipmania and the Dutch Golden Age

With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,
And flow’rs themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,
And learn’d to interline its cheek;
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold.
(Andrew Marvell, The Mower Against Gardens)

Jean Joseph-Xavier Bidauld

There was a moment in the 17th century when Europe went mad - for tulips, elegant Turkish wildflowers with a smooth, green stem, with an exceptional capacity for mutation, infinitely changing their shape.

SAMUEL VAN HOOGSTRATEN, Portrait of Johan Cornelisz. Vijgeboom and His Wife, 1647

There were numerous types of tulips: cup-shaped, bright colored or ranging from jewel tones to pastel shades, with feathery petals, or with petals that are either twisted, curled or waved. The tulip images were embroidered on dresses and woven into tapestries, painted in a great number of still lifes. The archives of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome contain glorious pictures of tulips along with samples of Renaissance silk, the 17th century books, the lists of indulgences sold in Germany.

Ambrosius Bosschaert, Flowers in a Vase, 1606

Transported from Turkey as bulbs, then passed on to the Dutch middlemen, tulips set in the European gardens. Tulip mania gripped all of Europe, infecting even the poorest people and not just the Dutch Republic. Mike Dash mentions in his book “Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused” "...the personalities involved in the creation of the tulip market, such as the orphans who made a fortune selling their late father's tulip bulbs and the man who owned a dozen extremely rare bulbs and wouldn't part with them at any price.”
"...the Fuggers, the fabulously rich Bavarian family of bankers who were to the 15th century what the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers were to the 20th... were growing tulips in Augsburg by the beginning of the 1570s.
"There were tulips in Vienna by 1572. They were in Frankfurt by 1593, and they reached the south of france by 1598.. Bulbs were sent to England as early as 1582, where they were soon grown in great quantity."

Balthasar van der Ast, Fruchtkorb (1632)

The price for tulips rose continually to vertiginous heights for 40 years in the early 17th century.
“At the height of the Tulipmania in November 1636, a single bulb of the legendary Semper augustus variety fetched the equivalent of 10 years' wages for the average worker; a couple of Viceroy bulbs cost the equivalent of an Amsterdam canal house. One unfortunate foreign sailor made himself rather unpopular with his employer by slicing up what he thought was an onion as a garnish for his herring. An English amateur botanist, intrigued by an unknown bulb lying in his host's conservatory, proceeded to dissect it, and was put in jail until he could raise an astronomical 4000 guilders.” (Lonely Planet Amsterdam By Karla Zimmerman, Caroline Sieg, Ryan Ver Berkmoes).

Dutch town in the 17th century

"... a representative calculation of the present-day price paid for a single Viceroy tulip bulb
during 1635, near the height of the tulipomania in Holland, totals a whopping $34,584. Therefore,Mackay's example of individual tulip bulbs fetching anywhere from 1,260-5,500 florins implies a present-day price range from $17,430 to $76,085 each." (Mark Hirschey, “How Much is a Tulip Worth?” Financial Analysts Journal, vol. 54, no. 4 (July/August 1998): 11-1; web.ku.edu/~finmhir/documents/Hirschey_TulipWorth.pdf)


The guilder (the name has often been interchangeable with florin) was the basic unit of currency in the Dutch Republic, which was made up of 20 stuivers.

Mike Dash in his book Tulipomania gives a note on prices:

Interestingly, the tulip traders were generally called “florists”, and sometimes, the most qualified dealers, were known as “liefhebber” - lover, as the flowers were for them more than a merchandise, but objects of passion and expertise.


In the prosperous Golden Age the expanding commerce had brought unprecedented welfare to the Dutch society along with sophisticated new tastes and new temptations. The tulip trader’s passion for rare flowers extended to other wonders of nature and human artistry - they also had been trading carved coral, gemstones, paintings, marbled paper, ostrich eggs and dogs, importing spices and silks from the far ends of the earth and then distributing them to the rest of Europe.

JAN DAVIDSZ DE HEEM Festoon with Flowers and Fruits 1670

The prices collapsed practically overnight in February 1637, ruining lives - the legend has it that Dutchmen merchants drowned themselves out of despair in the canals of Amsterdam and Haarlem.

Anne Goldgar, however, tells a different story in her book Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age. She informs us that the tulip merchants were generally groups of rich people, men and women, who also carried on a stable trade in other commodities (a silk merchant was said to have made more than 20,000 on tulips in one year).

Jan van Kessel, Still Life

They were linked to each other by religion, marriage and trade, with spare money to invest. In Haarlem archives she found the records indicating that most of the tulip traders, active in 1637, had carried on trade business years after the crash - “..Pieter Wynants, a prosperous Haarlem merchant and manufacturer of linen cloth snd thread, had 40,000 to leave to his children when he made a codicil to his will in 1641 (reflecting an increase from 30 in his will in 1638)”. The market just stabilized with more reasonable prices for tulip bulbs.

Saskia as Flora, REMBRANDT, 1634

She also mentions that an average laborer at the time had more important things to worry about than bulb trade as the region had been steeped in military conflict for years and the plague aftermath two years earlier which had killed 135,000 inhabitants of Amsterdam.

Tulip by Balthasar van der Ast

The real damage, Goldgar claims, was more personal. The traders were friends and neighbors; many were members of the close-knit Mennonite community. They bought and sold flowers on a market that functioned because a man's word was his bond. After the crash, however, buyers refused to make good on promises to pay. Suddenly, friends questioned one another's honor. In response, lawsuits were filed—but for slander rather than nonpayment. Dutch pamphleteers, who believed they were witnessing the breakdown of the social order, proclaimed the arrival of the Apocalypse. Fortunately, they were wrong, and a hundred years later there was a new mania to bemoan: the hyacinth.

Painting by Frans Hals

Fun Facts:
An English botanist, John Parkinson (1567–1650) mentions the tulips could be mashed into red wine and drunk as a cure for "a cricke in the nicke." (Mike Dash, Tulipomania)

Painting by Frans Hals

Tulip Vase by Dutch Unknown Potter

Tulip vase with the arms of Willem III, 1690s

Tulip Vase, Qung dynasty

Crispijn van de Passe Spring Garden, from Hortus Floridus, published 1614-15

Tulip Vase, Delft, c 1720

Late Qing dynasty (1644-1912)

Tulip Pulpit by Hans Witten, Freiberg Cathedral, Saxony

Abraham Mignon, 1660s


  1. Thank you for these texsts. I study art history for the first year and these are interesting to read. In Finnish there are not many blogs which discuss art history.

    - Henna from Finland -

  2. Hi Henna, I'm glad you find the post useful.


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