Historic Painting: “The Tulip Folly” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1882.

the tulip folly by gerome

For my discovery of this wonderful painting I have to tip my hat to the Google Art Project, which is one of the coolest and most important things happening in fine arts/humanities education on planet Earth right now. I saw it come across my Chromecast screen (a technology which, as I pointed out a few months back, was obliquely predicted by the Back to the Future movies) a few nights ago and knew I had to feature it in this series.

The Tulip Folly is by French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and was created in 1882. It depicts the famous “tulipomania” speculation bubble which occurred in Holland in 1637. Tulips, which were then new, became a commodity in which bankers began investing heavily. Prices soared as investors tried to cash in, but like the dot-com bubble that wrecked the American economy in 2000-01, there was nothing real behind it. The bubble popped and many people were ruined. This painting depicts Dutch soldiers trampling fields of tulips in an attempt to stabilize the supply and stop the bubble from popping. It’s a very vivid depiction of the follies to which modern capitalism can drive otherwise rational people.

Gérôme’s paintings, like this one, are both superbly realistic and also vaguely romantic. This looks like how a modern Hollywood filmmaker might depict Holland of the 17th century, and in fact I think Gérôme has influenced modern movies that show the past: one of his paintings of a Roman Empire scene looks like a model for a similar scene in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. As I researched this painting I became enchanted by some of Gérôme’s other works, and I’ll certainly be featuring some of them in future installments in this series.

The Google Art Project is trying to bring wonderful art to people of the world, for free, via the use of technology. Google is showing high-resolution reproductions of these famous paintings whose originals are displayed in various museums around the world which have partnered with Google for the project. Art like this should be shared and appreciated as widely as possible. The original of The Tulip Folly is on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

This picture is in the public domain.
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7 Comments

  1. Which reminds me that I must get round to finally finishing reading Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”

  2. Besides Mackay’s fine account of this “bubble”, the story spawned one of the ultimately funniest novels of Alexander Dumas Pere: “The Black Tulip”.

  3. In an interesting sidenote, after the collapse of the Tulip market in Holland, the State General, rather like the Congress of the Netherlands at the time met to decide how to solve all the financial entanglements that the collapse caused. Finally, they decided that all debts must be decided between the individuals concerned, however, under no circumstances could they resort to lawsuits to settle the disputes. Maybe we could take a lesson.

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