The Historical Allure of Variegated Tulips

Visualizing expansion, abundance, and prestige through depictions of “broken” tulips in the art of Basilius Besler, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Dr. Robert Thornton and Robert Furber

The variegated tulip is a flower brimming with historical intrigue, and the visual representations of these tulips necessarily conjure a similar sense of excitement and fascination from the viewer. As the primary agent in the Dutch speculative frenzy of the 1630s – an economic bubble known as tulipomania – the multi-colored flower maintains connotations as an exotic luxury commodity with the capability of producing irrational desire. Initially imported from Turkey in the 16th century, the tulip, — deriving its name from tulbend, which is Turkish for “turban” – soon acclimated to European soil and could be found proliferating in the gardens and galleries of France, England, Holland, and the Americas. This essay will examine the representations and temptations of the “broken” tulip in the art of Nuremberg artist and apothecary Basilius Besler, royal peintre of the French Monarchy Pierre-Joseph Redouté, English Doctor Robert Thornton, and Kensington nurseryman Robert Furber. These artists, among numerous others, capture and perpetuate the seduction of the plant through their prints.

To begin with, an overview of the characteristics and causes of variegated tulips is necessary, as well as a recollection of their significance in economic history and the social determining of value. A variegated or “broken” tulip is a multicolored flower that displays patterns such as stripes, streaks, and flames rather than the typical monochrome or ombre hues of a non-broken tulip. These visual aberrations made the broken tulips more desirable in 17th-century Holland where they were sought after with feverish intensity by individuals who hoped to make a profit by reselling them. Shortly thereafter the tulip market crashed leaving many investors financially devastated. Anna Pavord, in her monograph The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad, describes tulipomania as “the most cataclysmic phenomenon in the tulip’s long and complex history” (157). This assertion is not difficult to believe since there are records of a single Semper Augustus bulb commanding 100,000 florins, which was equivalent to the cost of a nice house. Part of the allure of the tulip was the undetermined cause of its appearance. It was not until the 20th century that botanists discovered the cause of the flower’s errant coloring, the Tulip-breaking virus.

Tulip-breaking Virus is transmitted by aphids and can be identified by the variegated color of the tulip petals. The viral infection alters the pigments of the tulip on a cellular level and causes the bud to exhibit multicolor patterns often called streaks or flames that “break” the naturally monochrome blossom. (Redoute’s Fairest Flowers, Stearn and Rix, 1987, p. 34) Unfortunately, the virus also causes the flower to weaken and any cultivated offset buds will likewise degrade over time.

However, these aspects of the flowers’ well-being were not known when the variegated tulip occupied a place of prestige from the 17th – 19th centuries throughout Europe. Rather, the flower was seen as a prized acquisition, visually evincing the vibrancy of international trade and conjuring notions of wealth, status, and abundance. In the work of Basilius Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (1613), we find a number of prints bearing the splendid flower. Take for instance, Deluxe Ed. Pl. 73, Red and Yellow tulip, et al. in which five tulips are delicately planted throughout the composition. Four of the tulips are closed and one tulip, the central red and yellow variegated tulip extends its petals in full bloom. Encircling it and extending upwards, tear-shaped buds are tenuously stabilized by lean stalks which don rippling leaves and conclude in a fibrous bulb and roots at the base. Below each rendering of the flower, its scientific name is calligraphically delineated.

Likewise in 1st Ed. Pl. 74, Early Yellow Tulip, Early White Tulip, et al., Besler again captures the mysterious “broken” tulips. Coyly curving, the tulip stems support a variety of buds infected with the valuable virus. Working several decades before the height of the tulip speculative frenzy enveloped Holland, Besler anticipates the value of the tulips by commanding a costly sum for his engravings. Angus Carroll explains how Besler’s monumental Hortus Eystettensis “was not only one of the most expensive books of the early seventeenth century, but with each leaf measuring 570 x 460 mm. (approximately 22 ½ x 18 in.), the largest” (Carroll 2009, 391). A deluxe copy was 500 florins (the price of a small house), while an uncolored copy was 35 florins. By 1637, the price of tulip bulbs themselves exceeded the cost of the folio by 200 x.

Seeing as Holland was a major agent in foreign trade at this time, the tulip mania that wracked the Dutch economy carried over to France and England as well and is detectable several centuries later in the botanical preferences of the upper classes. For instance, the gardens of Empress Josephine and later Marie-Amelie, as recorded by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, sported a great number of tulips. Among these are Pl. 141, Three Tulips; pink, yellow and red/yellow, from Redouté’s Choix des Plus Belles Fleurs, 1835 edition. In this composition, we are presented with three tulips drawn from the royal gardens. Centrally featured amongst the trio is the broken Tulipa Gesneriana, a flower native to West Asia and acclimated to French soil. It was common practice at this time for wealthy individuals to actively collect foreign plants for their gardens. As a result, the layout and contents of the imperial gardens tend to read as visual confirmation of French influence and control over global networks of trade that allow them to acquire and acclimatize these exotic objects of beauty. As a result, the preciousness of the tulip lies not only in its Dutch historical provenance but in its exotic intrigue and confirmation of royal power and influence as well.

In contrast to Besler’s costly florilegium, Redouté intended for his botanical prints to be viewed by the common man and not an exclusive asset of the wealthy. In his preface to Choix, Redouté outlines his intentions for the book: “The illustration of flowers presents agreeable pictures to admirers of nature and images to which it may please ladies to be compared; it also offers charming and valuable models to manufacturers who take advantage of it to enrich their wares, to principals of institutions interested in promoting the progress of their pupils in the art of design, and even to teachers dedicated to instruction in flower painting.” (Choix, 20) While there is a didactic element to his prints, Redouté’s tulips are also aspirational in that they allow the consumer to participate in the enjoyment of an exclusive space, the royal gardens. In this way, Redouté’s tulips act as a visual manifestation of what is desired whether that be abundance, wealth, or the opportunity to look upon those same flowers graced by the royal gaze.

Redouté Les Lilacées Pl. 477, Yellow-red variety of Gesner's Tulip

Similarly, across the channel in England, Dr. Robert Thornton is enchanted by the same flower. In his print Tulips, however, we can discern a distinctively English preference and aesthetic standard for the flowers. In sharp contrast to the pointed tulip petals of Redouté’s print, Thornton’s tulip petals are softly curved and uniform. This reflects the gardening trends of the time in which English gardeners actively cultivated tulips that produced soft, rounded petals. Anna Pavord explains how the 19th century was a time in which “the English Florist’s tulip had been the cynosure of beauty and the pinnacle of the florist’s craft” (The Tulip, 247). Moreover, English florists were “much concerned with the beauty of the inside of the tulip, the differences between the sizes, shape and colour of the basal blotch, the various colours of the stamen, the distinctions in texture between the inside and the outside of the petal, the inner surface often being much more highly glossed than the outer.” (The Tulip, 122).

Significantly, Thornton captures the centrally featured blue and white tulip open in order to show the preferred silk texture of the flowers interior. In this way, Thornton’s print demonstrates the unique tastes and changing standards for tulips from country to country. Additionally, the print visualized a selection of foreign and native tulips set against a Dutch background. As a result, the print aids in bridging the caesura between local and global contexts.

Lastly, Robert Furber, a Kensington nurseryman working in Williamsburg during the 1730’s, evokes a sense of year-long abundance in his prints. In a series of 12 prints devoted to the seasons of the year, three of them including February, March, and April include whimsical representations of the variegated tulip. Despite the harshness of the season, his floral displays resiliently act as a reminder of good things to come. Once again, the depictions of the tulips are a visual manifestation or an aspiration of the beholder to enact or encourage something – wealth, abundance, a good harvest, etc. His prints both reflect and enact a sense of abundance by picturing the overflowing floral displays.

Furber Pl. 2, February
Furber Pl. 3, March
Furber Pl. 4, April

Moreover, Furber’s list of subscribers, which is included in his publication The Flower Garden Display’d, is accented with a floral arrangement around the margins. Emerging from behind a lengthy list of Dukes, Earls, Ladies, and Esquires is a variegated tulip, substantiating their acclaim. Likewise, the prestigious names of the tulips themselves such as the Duke Vantol Tulip further buttress the relation between abundance, status and the semiotics of the variegated tulip.

In conclusion, despite the temporal and geographical differences behind the creation of the tulip prints discussed in this essay, the flower maintains a distinct correlation with themes of wealth, abundance, expansions and success. In part, this association can be attributed to the flower’s historical precedent in Tulipomania which forever solidified it’s association with acute desire and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

To explore additional tulip prints, please see the links below. 

Furber's subscriber list detail

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