Not long after the turn of the 17th Century, the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder began a small but exquisite still life depicting a bunch of cut flowers in a glass vase. Painted in oils on copper, which served to enhance the brightness and intensity of the hues, the picture showcased a remarkably lush floral arrangement.
In it, narcissi, chrysanthemums and various other flowers emerge from an improbably small vessel, creating an extravagant spray of colour. Towards the top of the composition, two rounded blooms, each seemingly as plump and soft as a piece of overripe fruit, catch the eye. One is pale pink, the other a dramatic, streaky combination of yellow and red. Both are tulips.
Brueghel’s still life, on loan from a private collection in Hong Kong, is the first painting on view in Dutch Flowers, a new, one-room display at the National Gallery in London. This small, free exhibition charts the course over two centuries of the genre of Dutch flower painting, which Brueghel originated. And tulips figure prominently in many of the 22 ravishing paintings in the show.
“So what?”, you might ask. After all, Dutch artists commonly depicted many other types of flowers, including irises and roses. Yet within the Dutch Republic of the 17th Century, tulips, in particular, were notorious. For this was the age of the so-called ‘tulip mania’, when speculators traded the flower’s bulbs for extraordinary sums of money, until, without warning, the market for them spectacularly collapsed. Ever since, the cautionary tale of tulip mania has been held up as the first example of an economic bubble.