Art + Botany: The Tulip Vase

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Art + Botany: The Tulip Vase

June 30, 2011
04:47pm
Photo by: Chatsworth vase; Flickr/Quimby

The year is 1634, and you live in Holland. If social status is any concern, you're looking to acquire the country's most conspicuous symbol of wealth: a tulip bulb. This is no small thing; during Holland's great tulip speculation, the most prized bulbs were worth more than the most expensive houses in Amsterdam. But that's not enough. You can't very well stick your botanic gold in any old glass jar—you'll need a special way to showcase your new luxury flowers. And so Dutch craftsmen designed a vessel for their sensational tulipomania cultivars: the tulip vase

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18th century tulip vase; Stedelijk Museum, Zwolle

Exquisitely hand-painted with Delft-blue floral motifs, Dutch tulip vases were designed with a number of individual spouts, one for each single tulip stem. The simpler vases were often shaped as a heart or urn; the more expensive vases were arranged as pyramids, with tiers of slender necks for so many colorful tulip blossoms. The tallest were almost six-and-a-half feet high, and were made up of individually stacked ceramic pieces.  

It was not only the Dutch who were mad for tulips and their elaborate vases—when the soon-to-be Queen Mary II left The Netherlands for the English court, the craze travelled with her. King William III and Queen Mary II filled their Hampton Court Palace with Delftware ceramics; the tallest vases kept the open floors blossoming with tulips, while smaller vases decorated tables and mantlepieces.  

Eventually, the vases became a display of their own: considered the most difficult to design, some of the tallest stacking pyramid vases were built with closed spouts. They would never display tulips, but the suggestion was enough to allude to the fabulous wealth of tulips, at least until tulipomania ended with its disastrous crash in 1637. The tulip market collapsed, along with Holland's economy. The country pursued a flower—and their lovely vases—to the point of financial ruin, but weren't those tulips pretty?

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Hampton Court Palace, William and Mary (left); Gemeente Museum, the Hague (right)

The tulip vase survived tulipomania; of course, they can be used for other flowers. Here is a collection of contemporary designs.  

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.