Down the Rabbit Hole

Last week, I gave a presentation, Tulip Mania and Still-Life Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, as part of the Dixon’s weekly Munch and Learn lunchtime lecture series. As of late, I have been thinking more and more about the connection between the galleries and the gardens at the Dixon. So, with that and the Bountiful Blooms exhibition in the gardens and the upcoming Botanical Drawing Class (both prominently featuring tulips) in mind, I thought I would explore the role tulips have played in art history. My talk would focus on the seventeenth century phenomenon of tulip mania and the overwhelming presence of tulips in Dutch still life painting from the same era. In preparing for my lecture, I found myself at a fascinating intersection of art, botany, economics, and cultural history.   

This left me in a bit of quandary.   

How can I discuss the Dutch obsession with tulips without knowing how they arrived in the Netherlands in the first place or without considering cultural context in which tulip mania existed? What caused the financial bubble now that is now famously considered the world’s first (often drawing comparisons to the recent contemporary financial crisis of 2008)? In my job as a research assistant, I constantly fight the urge to dive down the rabbit hole of peripheral subjects. Even as I prepared to write this blog post, I came across a fantastic nineteenth century painting that would have been perfect for my presentation, and could not resist including it here:   

<< image credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824-1904; The Tulip Folly, 1882, Oil on canvas; The Walters Art Museum; Gift of Mrs. Cyril W. Keene, 1983, 37.2612 >> In Gérôme’s imaginary scene of the Dutch tulip craze, a nobleman guards an exceptional bloom as soldiers trample flowerbeds in a vain attempt to stabilize the tulip market by limiting the supply.   

Short of giving a lecture on botany or producing graphs on commodity futures (there is a reason my degree is in Art History), I had to refrain from veering into a number of tangential topics to stay within the original parameters of my talk. Now that it has passed, I am excited to return to tulip mania in my spare time with the books I ordered for my research. Right now, I am reading Mike Dash’s book, Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. Two others, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar and The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age by Simon Schama, really delve into the cultural fabric of the Dutch Golden Age. If you missed the Munch and Learn, or if you want to go down the tulip mania rabbit hole yourself, these books are a great place to start.   


-Laura Gray McCann, Dixon Curatorial Research Assistant

Posted by Chantal Drake at 3:43 PM
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