Tulip Fever (2017, dir. Justin Chadwick, based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach) is a modest little movie set in Amsterdam (I think) in 1637. It tells the story of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), a young orphan married to Cornelis (Cristoph Waltz), a wealthy merchant. As usually happens when Hollywood presents May-December marriages, Sophia has an affair with a man closer to her own age, Jan (Dane DeHaan), a painter that Cornelis has hired to do a portrait of the two of them. What sets the film apart from every other iteration of this film are two things, the attempted resolution to the adultery and the fact that history’s first economic bubble, Tulip Mania, was happening at the time.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re thinking about watching this film, you might want to stop reading, since I give away a couple of big plot points.
The set-up is, as I’ve already said, pretty familiar. You’ve probably seen a dozen films with that Spring-Winter love triangle. Sophia is Cornelis’ second wife, his first wife having died in childbirth along with the baby. After three years of marriage, Sophia has not produced a child and Cornelis is beginning to talk about divorcing her (which he could have, although realistically Dutch religious authorities only granted divorce in cases of adultery). When Sophia meets Jan, the two of them quickly begin an affair, with a little help from Maria (Holliday Granger), Sophia’s servant and confidante. But then Maria’s boyfriend gets her pregnant and disappears, leaving her staring down the barrel of social ruin. The two of them, aided by an unscrupulous physician, hatch a plot to solve all three problems at once. Sophia will pretend to be pregnant while they hide Maria’s condition from Cornelis. When Maria gives birth, the baby will be presented to Cornelis as his, but they will claim that Sophia died in childbirth, allowing her to run off with Jan. Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned.
The film offers a nice look at how all of those portraits that you see in museums were painted. Jan spends some time making sketches of the couple, and paints their faces onto canvas, but then uses stand-ins and manikins dressed in the subjects’ clothes to paint most of the rest of the painting. He makes multiple studies of their faces and other details before finally executing the commissioned painting. He also talks about the symbolism of the various objects included in the painting: a globe to hint at Cornelis’ occupation as a spice merchant, a pair of scales to indicate an awareness of God’s judgment, and a skull to demonstrate an awareness of mortality. 17thcentury Dutch Calvinists were expected to show off both their economic success and their godliness, so an expensive painting could do both simultaneously. The portrait is intended as a way of saying “Look at me, bitches, I’ve got money, but I know it’s really just a temporary blessing from God.”
Unfortunately, the paintings that Jan does in the film look a lot more like an mid-20thcentury portraits than 17th century ones. But let’s not quibble.
Putting the Tulips in Tulip Fever
A key part of the story is the wild speculation into tulip futures that today is known as Tulipmania. Both Maria’s boyfriend and Jan get involved in speculating in the tulip market. Jan borrows heavily to purchase a rare bulb that he plans on selling to finance his intended life with Sophia. So let’s look at Tulipmania.
The Tulip was introduced into Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16thcentury, and it became extremely popular in the Netherlands in the 1590s, owing to its deeply-saturated color. By this point the Netherlands was rapidly rising in wealth due to the strength of its maritime trade; in the 17thcentury, the Dutch enjoyed the highest per capita income of any people in the world (one reason for all those Dutch paintings). The Dutch had a lot of money to spend, just like Americans in the 1980s, and the result was a thriving market for luxury goods like flowers. The most highly-prized were the ‘Breakers’, tulips that had a primary color broken with stripes of a different color, caused by the Mosaic Virus. The most highly-prized were the ‘Bizarres’, which had yellow or white stripes on red, purple, or brown backgrounds. (The film gets this wrong, claiming that the most coveted were white tulips with red streaks. I think they decided that red on white was either more striking on the screen or else that red on white had a nice symbolism for Sophia’s lost moral purity.)
In the 17thcentury, the Dutch had perhaps the most sophisticated financial sector in the world, with a thriving futures market. By the early 1630s, a market developed for speculation in tulip bulb futures, in which prices for the more unusual Breaker bulbs rose rapidly, and by 1636, the market for unbroken bulbs also heated up, and tulip bulbs became the fourth-most important export of the Netherlands. In 1635, one sale of 40 bulbs netted 100,000 guilders; for comparison, a skilled labor might earn between 150 and 350 guilders a year. So these bulbs were pretty much worth their weight in gold.
At that point, the market got quite complex. Investors bought contracts for future bulbs and then turned around and sold them immediately. What was changing hands was not the tulip bulbs themselves (which were still in the ground), but the contracts for ownership of those bulbs when they came out of the ground in the summer. Most of the people who bought the contracts never saw the bulbs they technically owned. Trading was done in taverns, with a small fee charged on each sale going to pay for wine, and one can easily imagine that some degree of inebriation played a role in the rising prices.
But then, in February of 1637, the market abruptly crashed. A group of buyers refused to show up to a sale in Haarlem because of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. The government declared that anyone could void a purchase contract by paying a 10% penalty, and as lawsuits occurred, judges concluded that these contracts were a form of gambling and thus unenforceable. And later in the month the Florists’ Guild decreed that those who held the futures contracts were not obligated to purchase the bulbs; in effect the futures contract became an option contract.
In 1841, the first modern account of Tulipmania was published by the Scottish author Charles Mackay. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay reported stories of mass irrationalities, lumping together the Crusades, dueling, fortune telling, and (most importantly for our purposes) economic bubbles. He identified Tulipmania as one of three major examples of speculative bubbles. An economic bubble arises when the trade price of something irrationally exceeds its intrinsic value. People buy the asset expecting the price to continue rising and then turn around and sell it, pocketing the difference between the purchase price and the sale price as profit. Eventually, however, the bubble bursts. People realize that the asset is over-valued and stop buying. That causes the prices to start coming down, and there’s a sudden scramble to unload the asset, generally at a loss. (The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Housing Crash of 2008 are both examples of speculative bubbles.)
Mackay’s description of Tulip Mania presented it as a madness that caught a hold of the general Dutch population, with everyone from nobles down to chambermaids and chimney sweeps getting into the market. He reports a story in which a sailor mistakenly ate a rare bulb, thinking it was an onion. (The story is probably false because while tulip petals are edible, tulip bulbs are both unpleasant-tasting and poisonous to humans unless carefully prepared.) Contracts supposedly changed hands hundreds of times. When the bubble burst, thousands were left destitute and some supposedly committed suicide by throwing themselves into the canals.
Tulip Fever definitely presents this view. Maria’s boyfriend buys a batch of plain white bulbs, hoping to make a small profit, but gets lucky when one bulb turns out to be a red-on-white Breaker. He pays 18 guilders for the lot and sells the Breaker for 920 guilders, but then gets robbed. The Breaker’s buyer then donates the bulb back to the convent that grew it, enabling the abbess (an underused Judi Dench) to sell it to Jan, who goes deeply in debt to buy it. Buying it for 1200 guilders, he sells it for 8000. But his creditors refuse to let him leave to fetch the bulb, so he sends his drunkard servant (played by the always-annoying Zach Galifianikis) to pick up the bulb from the abbess, who jokingly tells him it’s an onion. On the way back, he eats the bulb, thus ruining Jan. The market inexplicably collapses the same day.
The film mis-presents what’s going on. Instead of futures contracts, it shows the actual bulbs changing hands. The buyer gets a contract that is redeemed with the grower, who hands over the bulbs. I suspect the decision to show it this way was made because futures sales are a fairly abstract concept that is likely to confuse many viewers. But it’s hard to understand how a bubble could develop the way the film shows, since bulbs obviously take time to grow, which would probably act as a brake on the market. It was the very intangeability of the bulbs as an asset that allowed the market to get overheated. Also, if the bulbs themselves don’t change hands, that key moment of Jan’s bulb getting eaten can’t happen.
Nor does the film connect Tulipmania to the growing prosperity the Dutch were enjoying in the 1630s. As in 2008, there was too much money chasing too few investments and people felt flush with cash. Detached from its economic setting the whole Tulip Mania element of the film just feels a bit silly.
Mackay’s story of Tulip Mania is wildly exaggerated. Mackay was a great story-teller, but he wasn’t an historian. In the 1980s, economists began digging into the facts behind his narrative, and much of the story collapsed, its own kind of narrative bubble. Mackay drew on a number of pamphlets written by religious authors who were hostile to the idea of a futures market in tulips because they saw it as immoral. These pamphlets argued that the crash was due to an improper concentration on material things rather than salvation. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence for the movement of tulip prices; the vast majority of evidence comes from 1637, making it hard to say for certain that the prices were actually in a bubble. Contracts did not in fact change hands hundreds of times; the most-traded contracts changed hands five times, and usually much less than that. No one committed suicide over the crash.
More importantly, in contrast to Mackay’s claims, most of the evidence suggests that the people who were investing in tulip futures were wealthy merchants with excess cash to play with, not poor laborers hoping to get rich. Only 37 people are known to have spent more than 300 guilders on a purchase. Whereas Mackay claims that thousands were financially ruined, in actuality, it was probably more like 5 or 6 men who lost their shirts. In fact, most sales didn’t involve actual money changing hands (that wouldn’t happen until the final buyer actually picked up the bulbs in May or June), so unless someone had bought a contract on credit, they wouldn’t have lost much when the market crashed. The only people seriously at risk were those who were expecting to get paid for their bulbs. They still had their assets, but if they had borrowed money on the expectation of the sale, they could have been in serious trouble.
So while the price of tulips did suddenly crash in February of 1637, the scenario that the film presents is basically untrue, though not entirely without foundation. Overall, Tulip Fever is not a bad little film but it’s not exactly a great movie either, and it’s easy to see why it came and went last year without attracting much attention. Maria starts blackmailing Sophia, Jan doesn’t seem like a man likely to inspire adulterous passion, and Cornelis becomes quite sympathetic as the film goes on, leaving the viewer unsure who to root for by the film’s denouement. For a romantic drama, it has a surprising amount of humor, although Cornelis’ repeated struggles to get his “little soldier to stand up” get kind of creepy.
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Want to Know More?
If you want to know more about Tulipmania, Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is still in print, and gets updated periodically. Or you could get Anne Goldgar’s scholarly study of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, which debunks much of Mackay’s narrative.