Semper Augustus

A blood spattered mirror would have aroused suspicion in the garden of Dr. Adriaen Pauw. He was a director of the East India Company in its early years, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But if you looked closely enough you would see that the wild streaks of crimson belonged to Semper Augustus, a rare and expensive tulip many would have killed for. Dr. Pauw had almost all of the specimens in existence and he surrounded them with mirrors to give the illusion of a whole field. He refused to sell his bulbs, even though each one was worth, for a brief time, more than the annual earnings of many well-off merchants. Paintings, even Rembrandts, were cheaper. Perhaps Dr. Pauw didn’t need the money and enjoyed looking at his tulips, all the while stirring up jealousy in his neighbors. His reluctance made people want the Semper Augustus even more, shaping its reputation as the most beautiful and coveted of tulips.

Still Life by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1650-83; Coat by Dries van Noten Spring 2014; Massacre of the Innocents by Keith Edmier
Handmade items to buy: (clockwise) Plate by Alice Lasky; Earrings by Tina Roeder; Plate by Cristina Ripper; Ring by Marren; Pillow Cover by Samin; Clutch by Lisa; Mittens by Aurelija; Necklace by Péter Fehér

The stripes and swirls of Semper Augustus were the result of a virus, a spontaneous break of color that occurred once in a hundred bulbs, if that. Whoever thinks beauty is health did not witness the feverish obsession with diseased tulips that swept over the Dutch upper classes. Hans Bollongier’s Still Life depicts a highly unnatural bouquet in a state of decay. No one would have had that many broken tulips, roses, anemones, and carnations. (They don’t bloom simultaneously anyway.) The topmost specimens of Semper Augustus are at the peak of ripeness, but, as you look look down, the petals start to sag and lose their vibrancy.

Still Life by Hans Bollongier, 1639; Bloom by Anna Schuleit; Coat by Dries Van Noten Spring 2014
Handmade items to buy: (clockwise) Earrings by Sarah Davis; Clutch by Tovi Sorga; Pendant by Eli and Leah; Necklace by Eried; Earrings by Mayahelena; Etching by Sally Winter;  Earrings by Amber Sky; Flower by Cristina Ripper

Bollongier undresses the tulip to reveal the diseased, decaying flesh under its fancy clothes. The painting makes a case for its own worth, asking, why bother with the real thing when it will disappear in a few days? But the tulip was not just another pretty flower. Contemporary sources compared it to luxurious cloth, like silk embroidered with gold and silver thread. Broken bulbs did have fine, feathery patterns like the brushstrokes of a Dutch master or the embroidery of a skilled weaver. Just as exotic textiles traveled west via the Silk Road, cultivated tulips were man-made eye candy full of artificial flavors. Dr. Pauw would have known this better than anyone, being in charge of a network that dealt with equal parts pleasure and profit.