As an art historian, I am often asked to explain art history’s floral symbolism. Some believe this floral iconography is some secret language. Floral imagery speaks volumes if you can do the translation.
The Dutch love for tulips and their mildly fragrant bloom announces the coming of spring. Botanist Carolus Clusius brought the first tulip buds from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) to Leiden, in the Netherlands, in 1593. Originally used in medical research experiments, the flower sparked great economic interest in the 1600s as sales of the high-priced onion-like bulbs skyrocketed throughout Europe. Tulipomania resulted as well-to-do Dutchmen developed a taste for tulips as a luxury item.
Some socialites regarded the precious tulip bulbs as even too valuable to plant. Many displayed the bulbs on tables as part of a high style centerpiece. By the 1630s, tulips had increased in both popularity and price with significant property exchanges taking place in the pursuit of tulips. Dating back centuries, the tulip is the quintessential symbol of luxury, wealth, and prosperity in the history of antiques.
The delicate flower was a status symbol reflecting a taste for the extravagant. They are the flower to look for if you are seeking a work of art or antique that may have once adorned a grand manor house or king’s mansion.
Dutch baroque still life artists painted works featuring tulips for a new breed of art collectors. Today, international auction houses command as much as six figures for these masterpieces. Today, the favorite flower still helps promote Holland’s tourist industry, too.
The tulip motif can be found on many diverse antiques. Tulips appear on 1780s colonial blanket chests, 19th Century embroidered samplers, William and Mary tavern tables, Arts and Crafts period Newcomb pottery, cast iron doorstops, Pennsylvania Dutch frakturs, etc.
In the mid-1900s, the tulip became a true symbol of American wealth. The tulip was popular in World War II’s aftermath as Americans were rebuilding and rebirthing on the homefront. Young American families embraced the American prosperity movement and selected tulips as its symbol. In the historic Levittowns, a new class of suburbanites added tulip-shaped wrought iron railings to their front porches and decorated post-war interiors with rosewood tables carved with the triumphant blossoms.
American kitchens flowered with hand painted tulips on Blue Ridge dishes that attract today’s collectors to the vintage line at prices ranging from $50 to $150 per piece. The hopeful post-war feeling was synonymous with tulips which appeared on various American-made planters, canister sets, and cookie jars that sell on today’s market for as much as $500. Also, tulips adorned mid century fruit bowls, candy dishes, and advertising tins, all in the promotion of American prosperity. If you have a popular 1950s advertising tin, you could command as much as $65 for it.
Even contemporary banks embrace the tulip as a logo. The tulip image indicates that a financial institution can bring results since the tulip reflects wealth. So, if you want to collect and prosper, look for the sign of wealth –look for the tulip!