A Fascination with Tulips
By Gloria Williams Sander
June 15, 2020
Here in Southern California, in the land of palm trees and cactus gardens, cultivating plants that crave cold winters is a challenge. So when April arrives and the first shipments of tulips from the Pacific Northwest or from the Netherlands appear in the markets, I look forward to snagging a bunch to admire on my desk throughout the workweek. Tulips have a vivid history as a beloved flower. Four hundred years ago, when these bulbs were first imported from Turkey to Europe via expanding trade routes with the East, they became an object of fascination for botanists and gardeners alike. A series of watercolors in the Museum’s collection vividly illustrates Europeans’ infatuation with the tulip during the 1600s.
Painted on handmade paper, all 158 flower portraits were originally bound in an album. Each page records a different variety of tulip, accompanied by its title in brown ink, in a flourish of cursive script. The varieties had popular names that were often associated with towns, military heroes or figures from antiquity. A number of pages bear additional inscriptions in Dutch that record the price and weight of each tulip bulb depicted.
In the example of Admirael Der Admiraels de gouda, four rows of figures are visible directly under the tulip’s popular name. From left to right, one can see a number followed by the Dutch word asen, a unit of measure designed specifically for tulips. The symbol F, an abbreviation for the Dutch guilder, indicates the amount of money the bulb fetched at that weight. Heavier bulbs were generally more mature and offered greater likelihood of a successful bloom in the spring.
Each tulip has been depicted with great attention to the detail of its calyces, petal formation and coloring. The contours of its petals are recorded with pencil, and then filled in with opaque watercolor. Those tulips featuring petals that open outward or that turn in space are further articulated in pencil and gray wash to enhance their physicality, as seen in the illustration of Kamelot van wena.
The great attention to the taxonomy, or description of the bulbs, suggests that this bound volume functioned as a tulip book (tulpenboek) with a commercial purpose, as opposed to a fine art book for a collector or a scientific manual for a botanist. Growers, gardeners and bulb merchants commissioned these books to record their inventories during the months when the flowers were not in bloom, allowing them to show prospective customers what could be anticipated. Our assumptions about the purpose of these watercolors was confirmed when we discovered that this tulpenboek belonged to Simon Voorhelm, a third-generation nurseryman. His family’s business was founded around 1648 in Haarlem, coinciding with the dating of these watercolors. The Voorhelm family expanded their nurseries and their bulb exports in the next decades, and they were ready to capitalize on the flower fascination of the 1700s: the hyacinth.
Gloria Williams Sander is Curator at the Norton Simon Museum.