FANtastic! Decorative Fans from a Private Collection

Tue, Oct 08, 2019 at 1:45PM

By Ruth Grim, Chief Curator/Gary R. Libby Curator of Art

On view in the Bouchelle Changing Gallery near Visible Storage in the North Wing of MOAS are selections from a very fine local collection of decorative personal fans. We are very lucky indeed to have the opportunity to show these pieces from the collection of Judy Bush who has been acquiring beautiful antique and modern examples of different types of fans from around the world. If you haven’t had a chance to see this exhibition yet, then please put it on your calendar, because it’s a rare chance to see truly lovely objects that speak to a bygone era of woman’s fashion and personal adornment. 

Fig. 1  

 

Fans for personal cooling have a long history. Some of the earliest known examples date back to 3200 B.C. in Egypt. In fact, a beautiful fan was actually found in Tutankhamen’s tomb dating around 1355 B.C. And other ancient examples are known from countries around the world in China, Japan, Assyria (modern-day Syria and Iraq), Greece, and Italy. In the Renaissance, fans were made for the wealthy from the rarest materials available and embellished with fine metals and jewels. The tradition of turning fans into miniature paintings seems to have caught on in Europe during this time but the height of this practice came during the 18th century. This was the Golden age of artisan fans, particularly in France. 

It was the age of the Rococo when the French aristocracy was at the height of its power and wealth, both of which were reflected in the artistic tastes of the day. Gilt, silk, ivory, mother of pearl, lace – all were employed in the making of elaborate fans for the ladies at the French court. In addition, the mostly flat surface provided by the fan when it was fully opened proved irresistible as a vehicle for watercolor paintings after the manner of the court artists Jean-Antoine Watteau and FrançoisHonoré Fragonard who made the Rococo fête champetre (garden party or outdoor folly of the French courtiers) synonymous with early 18th century French art.

Fig. 2  

A rare Vernis Martin fan is also in this exhibition. The name comes from the Martin family of French 18th century furniture designers who perfected a type of lacquer to simulate the highly-desirable lacquers coming to Europe from the Orient at this time. Vernis Martin Brisé (a fan made of sticks only and no vellum) are renowned for their elaborate, fully painted sticks revealing deep-toned images with deep green or golden reds; the most popular colors. Later 19th century fans often reflected the great age of French landscape painting as depicted in the hand-painted fan here with rosewood sticks. Birds and flowers abound in this lovely waterside view from c. 1875-1880, proving that artists and the late 19th century taste for the exotic extended to other forms of Asian fans, such as the vibrant fuchsia and ivory sultane fan in this exhibition (fig. 4). The term “sultane” refers to a type of fan in which the sticks are seen from the front and the back of the leaf. This type of fan is identified with middle eastern attire of ages past such as the sultanate Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) lasting into the 19th century.

A rare Vernis Martin fan is also in this exhibition. The name comes from the Martin family of French 18th century furniture designers who perfected a type of lacquer to simulate the highly-desirable lacquers coming to Europe from the Orient at this time. Vernis Martin Brisé (a fan made of sticks only and no vellum) are renowned for their elaborate, fully painted sticks revealing deep-toned images with deep green or golden reds; the most popular colors.

 

Fig. 3                                                                       Fig. 4


Later 19th century fans often reflected the great age of French landscape painting as depicted in the hand-painted fan here with rosewood sticks. Birds and flowers abound in this lovely waterside view from c. 1875-1880, proving that artists and the late 19th century taste for the exotic extended to other forms of Asian fans, such as the vibrant fuchsia and ivory sultane fan in this exhibition (fig. 4). The term “sultane” refers to a type of fan in which the sticks are seen from the front and the back of the leaf. This type of fan is identified with middle eastern attire of ages past such as the sultanate Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) lasting into the 19th century.

 

 
Fig. 5                                                                       Fig. 6

 

From China, a favorite fan type called the “thousand faces” fan (fig. 8) also gained favor in the 19th century as all things Asian were the height of vogue. Chinese artisans displayed their painting skills by attempting to include as many figures as possible on the small surface of the fan leaves and added additional embellishments such as tiny motherof-pearl faces and silk clothing to impress Western buyers. Look closely at the “Thousand Faces” fan in this exhibition and you will see the delicate slivers of ivory on each face as well as the brilliant primary reds, blues, and greens complimented by gold-decorated black lacquer favored in 19th century Mandarin decorative arts.

The turn of the 19th century also saw fans with Art Nouveau and Art Deco stylings. One such exquisite example from c. 1895-1910 (fig. 5) has its sheer cream-colored silk leaf and celluloid sticks adorned with silver and black sequins and spangles in a stylized, natural vine pattern. Its freeform naturalism places it in French Art Nouveau but its silvery eye-catching sparkle seem to hint at the brilliance and flare of the Jazz Age between the world wars. Crossover between Art Nouveau and Art Deco is common in the decorative arts and this elegant piece is a treasured reminder of a time when great attention was paid to women’s fashion accessories and the notice that they would bring the owner. The owner of this fan was certainly no wallflower.

Fig. 7  

Some of the fans in the exhibition are painted in strong early 20th century Modernist style. One of these is from the Casa Rubio in Seville, Spain – a famous shop known for its fans and flamenco attire that was a landmark in Seville since the turn of the 19th century (fig. 6). In beautiful expressionistic strokes it shows a celebration and mounted procession of turbaned riders on horseback accompanied by fireworks in the background, all setoff against deep blue sky at dusk. It captures the magic of the festivities in vibrant color contrasts and simple, bold brushstrokes, in keeping with early 20th century French Modernist painting.

Fans used for advertising businesses became common from the 1920s on, as did souvenir fans from popular vacation landmarks. Fascinating examples of these are included in the exhibition with some from Florida locations. The one pictured (fig. 7) dates from this era or slightly earlier in St. Augustine and depicts Ponce de Leon, palm fronds, oranges and orange blossoms, the Castillo de San Marcos and its Coat of Arms and the famous gates of the city. With air conditioning still a long way off in the Sunshine State, these fans must certainly have been a favorite souvenir of tourists coming here over a century ago.

Fig. 8  

With beautiful imagery and rich, delicate embellished details, the fans in FANtastic! Decorative Fans from a Private Collection are sure to delight as they represent artistic tastes across centuries and cultures. They are mini works of functional art meant to enhance the attire, reputation and status of the women who held them. Today they remind us of elegant eras past, remnants of a time when no object was too small or ordinary for artistic decoration of a high quality.


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