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A Taste for Tulips

The graceful tulip features in many diverse works throughout the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, from paintings and textiles to ceramics and stained glass

Tulips often conjure images of Holland, where National Tulip Day inaugurates an annual festival of blooms. Yet the beloved flower—whose name is derived from the Turkish word for turban, tülbent—was first brought to Europe in the sixteenth century from Turkey.


Tulip quilt, America, Mid-Atlantic, ca. 1850–80

Originally a wildflower, the tulip was seen as divine by the Turks, who considered it the flower of God and heavenly paradise. During the rule of the great Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (ca. 1520–1566) it became established as the essential Turkish flower. Many artisans painted the revered blossom on colorful pottery from Iznik, one of the most important centers for ceramic production in the Middle East.


Dish depicting two birds among flowering plants, Turkey, Iznik, ca. 1575–90

Recalling the splendid Iznik ceramics in the Museum’s collection, we have sourced a selection of handcrafted stoneware from Turkey, highlighting the distinctive tulip designs of the originals. The Red Tulip Collection includes bowls, vases, and plates.


The stoneware Red Tulip Plate, handcrafted in Turkey in the tradition of Iznik pottery, features a decorative tulip motif

The first tulip definitely known to have flowered in Europe was grown in 1559 in Bavaria, where a botanist described it as “large, like a red lily.” Tulips quickly spread across Europe as a new taste for luxurious gardens and rare, showy tulip varieties took hold among the elite.

Wealthy Dutch connoisseurs spent lavishly on the tulip; in the 1630s, the prosperous cities of the Netherlands became caught up in “tulipomania,” a frenzy of buying and selling. During this period a single tulip bulb could sell for more than a house!


Four Tulips by Jacob Marrel, ca. 1635–45

Specialists such as Jacob Marrel were commissioned to paint books of tulips that served as catalogues of a dealer’s stock or a proud owner’s collection. A double page of delicate watercolors by Marrel in the Met’s collection (above) shows four species of tulips: Boter man (Butter Man), Joncker (Nobleman), Grote geplumaceerde (The Great Plumed One), and Voorwint (With the Wind). These sprightly blooms grace our boxed notecards.

Influential Arts and Crafts designers often turned to botanical models for inspiration. Among the popular decorative designs by William Morris is his Wild Tulip wallpaper of 1884, available as a frameable digital reproduction.


Tulip Lamp, Tiffany Studios, America, Mid-Atlantic, 1907–12

Louis Comfort Tiffany also embraced the tulip’s elegant form, which he translated into luminous creations in stained glass, such as his Tulip Lamp, left.

Whether they are found in the Museum’s galleries or in-store, we celebrate these timeless and captivating flowers.

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