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Not continued afterwards the about-face of the 17th Century, the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder began a baby but admirable still activity depicting a agglomeration of cut flowers in a bottle vase. Corrective in oils on copper, which served to enhance the accuracy and acuteness of the hues, the account showcased a appreciably abundant floral arrangement.

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In it, narcissi, chrysanthemums and assorted added flowers appear from an improbably baby vessel, creating an absurd aerosol of colour. Towards the top of the composition, two angled blooms, anniversary acutely as beefy and bendable as a allotment of corrupt fruit, bolt the eye. One is anemic pink, the added a dramatic, streaky aggregate of chicken and red. Both are tulips.

Brueghel’s still life, on accommodation from a clandestine accumulating in Hong Kong, is the aboriginal painting on appearance in Dutch Flowers, a new, one-room affectation at the National Gallery in London. This small, chargeless exhibition archive the advance over two centuries of the brand of Dutch annual painting, which Brueghel originated. And tulips amount acutely in abounding of the 22 admirable paintings in the show.

“So what?”, you ability ask. Afterwards all, Dutch artists frequently depicted abounding added types of flowers, including irises and roses. Yet aural the Dutch Republic of the 17th Century, tulips, in particular, were notorious. For this was the age of the alleged ‘tulip mania’, back speculators traded the flower’s bulbs for amazing sums of money, until, after warning, the bazaar for them spectacularly collapsed. Anytime since, the cautionary account of tulip aberration has been captivated up as the aboriginal archetype of an bread-and-butter bubble.

Roots of the problem

When Brueghel was at assignment on his still life, amid 1608 and 1610, this balloon was still decades abroad from bursting. Brueghel and his specialist contemporaries, such as Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, corrective flowers in adjustment to baby for the new and fashionable absorption in agronomics that was arresting gentlemen botanists and affluent connoisseurs. One of their leaders was the beat botanist Carolus Clusius, who accustomed an important botanical garden at the University of Leiden during the 1590s.

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Clusius additionally had a clandestine garden at Leiden, and it was actuality that he buried his own accumulating of tulip bulbs. At that time, tulips, which originally hailed from the Pamir and Tien Shan abundance ranges in axial Asia, and had already been able by addled gardeners in the Ottoman Empire for decades, were attenuate and alien newcomers to Western Europe. They were adamantine to get authority of, and bound became adapted by added advisers besides Clusius.

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Clusius adherent a ample admeasurement of his final years to belief tulips. He was abnormally absorbed in compassionate how and why, from one year to the next, a accurate ball could aback ‘break’. This meant that, inexplicably, it would go from bearing blooms of a distinct colour to flowers boasting admirable bristling or flame-like patterns involving added than one hue.

Much later, during the 19th Century, it was apparent that this alveolate aftereffect was absolutely the aftereffect of a virus. But, in the 17th Century, this was still not understood, and so, abnormally enough, afflicted tulips, emblazoned with characteristic patterns, became added admired than advantageous ones in the Dutch Republic. Dutch botanists competed to brand anytime added admirable amalgam varieties, accepted as ‘cultivars’.

In the aboriginal 17th Century, these cultivars began to be exchanged amid a growing arrangement of gentlemen scholars, who swapped cuttings, seeds and bulbs both aural the Netherlands and internationally. “As that arrangement grew,” explains Betsy Wieseman, the babysitter of Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery, “it became beneath of a accord network, and the advisers started accepting requests from bodies they didn’t know. So they started trading for money. And as that arrangement grew and grew, it became added fragile.”

Strange bunch

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The accretion absorption in tulips coincided with an abnormally affluent aeon in the history of the United Provinces, which, by the 17th Century, bedeviled apple barter and had become the richest country in Europe. As a result, not alone aloof citizens but additionally affluent merchants and alike common artisans and tradesmen aback begin that they had additional banknote to absorb on luxuries such as big-ticket flowers.

Already by 1623, the sum of 12,000 guilders – appreciably added than the amount of a acute townhouse in Amsterdam – was offered to allure one tulip adept into departing with alone 10 bulbs of the beautiful, and acutely rare, Semper Augustus – the best coveted tulip variety. It was not abundant to defended a deal.

When chat got out, during the 1630s, that tulip bulbs were actuality awash for ever-increasing prices, added and added speculators accumulated in to the market. The intricacies of this market, as able-bodied as its frailties, are blithely categorical by the historian Mike Dash in Tulipomania: The Adventure of the World’s Best Coveted Annual and the Amazing Passions It Aroused (1999).

One of the curiosities of the 17th Century tulip bazaar was that bodies did not barter the flowers themselves but rather the bulbs of deficient and approved varieties. The result, as Dash credibility out, was “what would today be alleged a futures market”. Tulips alike began to be acclimated as a anatomy of money in their own right: in 1633, absolute backdrop were awash for handfuls of bulbs.

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As bodies heard belief of acquaintances authoritative exceptional profits artlessly by affairs and affairs tulip bulbs, they absitively to get in on the act – and prices skyrocketed. In 1633, a distinct ball of Semper Augustus was already account an amazing 5,500 guilders. By the aboriginal ages of 1637, this had about doubled, to 10,000 guilders. Dash puts this sum in context: “It was abundant to feed, accouter and abode a accomplished Dutch ancestors for bisected a lifetime, or acceptable to acquirement one of the grandest homes on the best fashionable aqueduct in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a drillmaster abode and an 80-ft (25-m) garden – and this at a time back homes in that burghal were as big-ticket as acreage anywhere in the world.”

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Cut flowers

Things came to a arch during the winter of 1636-37, back tulip aberration accomplished its peak. By then, bags of bodies aural the United Provinces, including cobblers, carpenters, bricklayers and woodcutters, were indulging in agitated trading, which about took abode in begrimed alehouse backrooms. (Drink was a cogent agency in the about bagged mood.) Some bulbs alike afflicted easily up to 10 times during the advance of a distinct day.

And then, overnight, the alehouse barter disappeared. In aboriginal February 1637, the bazaar for tulips collapsed. This was because best speculators could no best allow to acquirement alike the cheapest bulbs. Demand disappeared, and flowers confused to a tenth of their above values. The aftereffect was the anticipation of banking accident for many. Disputes over debts rumbled on for years.

The amazing affair is that the collapse of the bazaar for tulips didn’t abate the Dutch appetence for flowers – in art, at least. Dutch annual painting persisted for the best allotment of two centuries. It is accessible to atom tulips in, for instance, Jan van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Boutonniere of 1736-37. Yet, ironically, actual few annual paintings of any array survive from the 1630s, back the Dutch Republic was in chains to tulip mania: “There absolutely is this breach in assembly of annual paintings in the 1630s and ’40s,” says Wieseman, “and I can’t absolutely explain it.” Perhaps, for a few years at least, the excesses of tulip mania, and the alarming memories of it that followed, were so awful for Dutch art collectors that they couldn’t abdomen the abstraction of attractive at a account of a annual blind on their wall.

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Alastair Sooke is Art Critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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