Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Open September 23 through January 8; Fortune and Folly in 1720 examines the world’s first major stock market collapse and its portrayal in art

The stock market crash of 1720—the world’s first major international financial collapse—is the focus of a new exhibition at The New York Public Library. Opening Friday, September 23, at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Fortune and Folly in 1720 highlights a trove of objects that both sensationalize and satirize a disaster whose repercussions still resonate today.

In 1720, citizens flocked to the banking streets of Paris, London, and Amsterdam to speculate in New World trading companies, and by the close of that year, an unprecedented bull market culminated in an international financial crash. Orchestrated by the governments of France and England, and fueled by illusions of colonial wealth, these investment bonanzas—known as the South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles—have become synonymous with the temptations of get-rich-quick schemes and the dangers of herd behavior. They also ushered in the mass circulation of banknotes, and with it, an avalanche of prints parodying the worthlessness of a paper economy.

The works in the exhibition, all drawn from the Library’s collections, include caricatures from a Dutch volume known as “The Great Mirror of Folly” (Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid) that were published as the crisis was unfolding. Loaded with jokes, often of a scatological nature, The Great Mirror of Folly lifts the curtain on a farcical political theater starring caddish bankers, villainous seductresses, and duped investors. Offering tragicomic depictions of these and other characters, the prints hold up a mirror to our own age, with our increasingly complex monetary instruments and cycles of boom and bust. They also reflect on the intersections between art and money, reminding us that both are products of human imaginings. 

Fortune and Folly in 1720 is curated by Madeleine Viljoen, the Library’s curator of the Print and Spencer Collections, along with art history professors Meredith Martin (New York University) and Nina Dubin (University of Illinois Chicago). The exhibition also features: 

  • prints by prominent artists Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Jacques Callot, and William Hogarth.
  • embellished maps and other “New World” propaganda; 
  • letters from famous speculators including Sir Isaac Newton; 
  • related objects, among them a magic lantern and a French Revolutionary fan. 

The exhibition concludes by exploring depictions of later market meltdowns, including the British artist Grayson Perry’s satire of the 2008 bubble. As Viljoen observes, “What better place to explore this story than New York City, a global capital of finance and art?” 

Fortune and Folly in 1720 has been made possible by the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach. Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman. Additional support for the exhibition was provided by the IFPDA.

About The New York Public Library
For over 125 years, The New York Public Library has been a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming, and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library receives approximately 16 million visits through its doors annually and millions more around the globe use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support.