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Fans from the Collection

Start Date 23 August 1988
End Date 4 September 1998
Venue Philadelphia Museum of Art
Location Philadelphia, USA
Curator Dilys Blum

Since antiquity, fans have been used for utilitarian, ceremonial, and decorative purposes. Oversize fixed feather fans were used during court ceremonies in Pharaonic Egypt while the flabellum formed part of early Church ritual. By the late fifteenth century the fixed feather fan, with its elaborately decorated handle, had achieved the status of a luxury item in Europe and was carried by the aristocracy at court. The common people had their own version – paper flag fans attached to wooden sticks. A second type of fan, the folding fan, originated in Japan. It was introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century through Portuguese trade contacts with China, and by the end of the seventeenth century was in use by the well-to-do as a fashion accessory. 

Fans and fan parts were produced throughout Europe as well as exported from China by the East India Companies with French fans being the most highly regarded. Production in England and France was strictly regulated. In France it was controlled by the guild of fanmakers until 1789 and in England by a City of London livery company still in existence today. Individual workshops produced the fan’s separate parts with the final assembly overseen and coordinated by a master craftsman. The most popular themes for painted and printed fans during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included scenes from mythology and the Old Testament, pastiches of paintings by contemporary artists such as Watteau and Boucher, copies of the Old Masters as well as more topical subjects such as popular literature, the theater, and current events. 

By the end of the eighteenth century fans were smaller in scale and simpler in decoration in keeping with the new, slimmer silhouette in fashion. Fans decorated with neoclassical designs replaced the elaborate pictorial leaves that had been popular earlier. The interest in historicism that accompanied the Restoration of the French monarchy (1814-30) led to renewed interest in earlier fan styles and to a revival of the industry. By mid century increased production was furthered by technological advances, including the fly press for stamping out and embossing ribs, the mechanical cutter for sticks, and the use of chromolithography in printing the fan’s leaf, an inexpensive substitute for the more labor intensive painted or hand-colored engraved leaf. During the last quarter of the century lace and feather fans became popular fashion accessories as did fans decorated by enterprising amateurs. During the 1870s contemporary artists stimulated by the interest in Japanese art experimented with fan painting, and the fan shape became an accepted compositional model used by artists such as Degas. Attempts were made to improve the quality of fan painting and design through competitions in the hope of promoting it as a minor art while firms such as Duvelleroy and Alexandre hired artists to decorate fan leaves. 

The first fans to be exported to America from the Far East arrived in New York on the Empress of China in 1785. Fans continued to be produced in China specifically for the Western market until the end of the nineteenth century and were designed to appeal to Western taste and suit a Western aesthetic. Export fans were made of a wide range and combination of materials, including sandalwood, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, painted silk, silver filigree, feathers, and lacquered wood. The fans of the late 18th and early 19th century were often finely carved or lacquered ivory as well as painted with copies of European designs. Those of the mid century were frequently decorated with Chinese landscapes or court scenes with figures with ivory faces and appliqué silk costumes, while others were constructed from brightly painted goose feathers. 

The fans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century revived many of the subjects and shapes popular a hundred years earlier. Romantic eighteenth-century style scenes competed with Empire fontange or arched fans decorated with sequins. Other designs reflected contemporary art movements such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Ostrich feather fans (immortalized in the dance of Sally Rand) became the ubiquitous accessory of the twenties flapper. Other fans served a more prosaic function, as advertisements for restaurant, hotels, and funeral parlors. Man-made materials such as Bakelite, Celluloid, and plastic now replaced the more expensive ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell. By the 1930s the fan was no longer considered essential to fashionable women’s dress. Today however there is renewed interest in the fan as a fashion accessory and contemporary designers such as Karl Lagerfeld have incorporated fans into their collections. 


Dilys E. Blum