Imagine if the camera had never been invented. Not that I wish for this, but I sometimes think about spending my days being paid to paint portraits of tulips. This was the case for painters during Tulip Mania, the speculation bubble in 17th century Amsterdam. Since the tulips were sold as bulbs at ever higher prices, owners of especially rare tulips commissioned paintings of the plants in the spring, when they were in bloom. What a pleasant occupation, painting tulips, though it would be only a seasonal job, of course.
Fortunately for the modern day gardener, the 16 classes of tulip (Single Early, Double Early, Greigii, Kaufmanniana, Fosteriana, Species, Darwin Hybrid, Triumph, Parrot, Single Late, Double Late, Viridiflora, Lily-flowering, Fringed, Rembrandt and Multiflowering) provide weeks of continuous bloom for us to enjoy. There must be thousands of named tulip cultivars, and the names (the “cultivar epithets”) listed in garden catalogues, together with luscious colour photos, are an annual source of temptation to the gardener: Abigail, Menton, Blue Heron, Queen of the Congo, Mount Tacoma, Sunrise, Strawberries & Cream, Vanilla Cream, Candle in the Night. China Town.
The first tulip to bloom in my garden this year is a Single Early white tulip whose name I have forgotten. The photo was taken yesterday, in the rain of course. Most of my tulips are grown in containers on a large deck because of the many deer passing through our yard in search of a tasty snack. There is nothing quite like the experience of looking in the late afternoon at a perfect bud about to open and finding in the morning nothing but a bare stalk (arghhhh!). This is not the only mishap that can occur to tulips in the garden. It’s never happened to me, but my daughter says the squirrels dig up the bulbs she’s just planted and bury them somewhere else, so that tulips are coming up every spring in unexpected places. The elegant, wineglass shape of the tulip (although truly it is the wineglass that is shaped like the tulip) is an appealing image for the painter because of its beauty and its simplicity.
There was a period (my own personal Tulip Mania) when I painted nothing but tulips: single tulips, groups of tulips, abstract tulips; one painting after another. The ease of drawing and composition allowed me to play with format, colour and background. The results were almost always pleasing and seemed to appeal to other tulip-lovers, especially in those winter months, the months without flowers. Long after this phase gave way to Lily Mania (more on this later), I still find myself returning to the tulip when I’m experimenting with new materials or a new process or, sometimes, when I’m just stuck.