Rembrandt van Rijn was a master of light and shadow, a conjurer of atmosphere. He lived during the era of wild speculation in tulip bulbs known as Tulipomania, when a single rare bulb might sell for enormous sums. Rembrandt rarely painted tulips, but today tulip flowers with painterly strokes of red or yellow are often called ‘Rembrandt’ tulips. This is the look that captivated 17th century Dutch gardeners and speculators.
Technically, Rembrandt tulips are historic varieties with “broken” coloring, which causes them to be striped or streaked with a second color. The “break” is caused by a virus, and the exotic coloring is not genetically reliable. But you can still capture the look: the modern tulips Dutch growers often refer to as Rembrandt-type tulips are healthy, dependable, and affordable — and they are still stunning.
Dutch growers have developed lots of tulips with the dramatic Rembrandt look. ‘Rem’s Favorite’ has marvelous purple flames against snow-white petals. ‘Fire Wings’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are red-with-yellow tulips in the classic Rembrandt tradition. ‘Carnival de Rio’ is an extraordinarily flashy white tulip with feathery brush-strokes of bright red. ‘Estella Rijnveld’ and ‘Flaming Parrot’ have the same white-with-red palette, but their flowers are larger and the petals more twisted and flamboyant — just the sort of tulip shown among the flowers and insects in lavish still-lifes by 17th-century Dutch masters.
Old Dutch paintings often show Rembrandt tulips in full bloom. All tulips continue to grow after they are cut for a bouquet, and long-stemmed tulips are tremendously graceful as they respond to the light in a room.
One of Rembrandt’s famous paintings, ‘Flora,’ shows a woman — the painting is said to be of his young wife — herself a picture of spring with a gay crown of flowers in her hair. One of the blooms is a white tulip with flashing flames of red. It may be the most famous ‘Rembrandt’ tulip of all.