The Golden Age: Eighteenth Century Fans

The Fan Museum

Discover the history and artistry of the ubiquitous costume accessory worn by royalty, aristocracy and the middle classes in the 18th century. 

The Golden Age
The fan proliferates throughout the 'long' Eighteenth Century. It becomes a ubiquitous costume accessory worn by royalty, aristocracy, the middle classes and, by the close of the century, even the lower classes could afford to purchase simple printed fans. Whilst the artistry of fan painting continues to flourish and copies of Master paintings remain popular, new types of fan emerge. They reflect the nuances and caprices of eighteenth century life, unfurling scenes of domesticity, romantic liaisons and even current affairs.
Printed Pleats
In 1759 an anonymous fan painter suggests that the rise in popularity of printed fans (which he refers to as "the evil") triggered the demise of fan painting.  He comments, "The lady of quality down to the kitchen maid were pleasing themselves with the cheapness of their bargains".  We also learn that fan prints were often coloured by fan painters who, in the words of the author, were "constrained to do that, rather than perish".

The Trial of Warren Hastings, 1788

Fan with plain wooden sticks. The paper leaf is printed with an engraving of the Trial of Warren Hastings (dated 1788) and is decorated with sequins and metal thread.

The central image is accompanied by a key identifying significant figures who were involved with the trial. Warren Hastings (1732-1818) was unjustly accused of corruption and impeached in 1787. His trial lasted until 1795 when he was eventually acquitted.

My Shoe, circa 1811, sticks probably 1790s

Fan with lacquered chinoiserie sticks. The paper leaf is printed and hand coloured with a disproportionate figure of a child in a landscape, after a print by Adam Buck entitled, 'My Shoe' (published by Ackermann, 1811).

Let Them Eat Cake
The Golden Age of fan painting accurately reflects the omnipotence of the aristocracy. In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, this privileged class appear evermore detached from the realities of life experienced by all other sections of society.

Idealised aristocratic lifestyle

Fans painted with stately homes, country pursuits and pastoral fantasies evoke a sense of this idealised aristocratic lifestyle.

My Lady, circa 1720

The double leaf is painted on the recto with interlinked narratives showing an aristocratic family and servants within a grand room. In the distance, formal gardens are seen through windows.

La folie des dames de Paris, circa 1770

The image shows a seated female figure having her tall wig powdered by a hairdresser perched atop a ladder.

The image is a satirical commentary on the elaborate wigs and hairstyles that were fashionable at this time.

Affairs of the Heart
During the long Eighteenth Century, marriage becomes more than just a business arrangement. Romance and courtship prevail, interpreted by fan painters as allegories of betrothal and marriage. The greater majority of fans of this type show Venus (goddess of love) disarming Mars (god of war) or generic couples in classical attire at the Altar of Hymen (god of marriage, often portrayed as female).

Venus Disarming Mars, Mid-Eighteenth Century

The single vellum leaf is painted on the recto with Venus and Mars after Gerard de Lairesse. Venus is shown semi recumbent and exposed with Mars beguiled. The amorini, toying with his weaponry, symbolise his disarmment.

The Classics
For inspiration fan painters looked with particular regularity to classical subjects.  Fans painted with stories from Greek or Roman mythology conveyed an air of erudition and of course offered opportunities for socially appropriate conversations.

The Abduction of Helen, circa 1740s

The single leaf is painted on the recto with the Greek myth of the Abduction of Helen. Helen is abducted and carried off by Paris Prince of Troy, who has claimed her with the approval of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Helen's husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, reacts by mounting an attack on the city of Troy thus beginning the Trojan War.

Diana & Endymion, circa 1750s

The subject depicted probably relates to the story of Diana and Endymion, a youth with whom the goddess fell in love. Two further cartouches show rural scenes and putti in the style of Francois Boucher.

Many fans of the period feature designs painted in the Chinoiserie manner, a European decorative style that imitates and combines elements of Chinese art and design with those of Western Europe.  As the Century progresses, the taste for Chinoiserie grows, peaking around 1770.  Fans painted with evermore fanciful designs conjure the perceived exoticism which the Far East continues to evoke in the minds of Europeans.

Cabriolet & Chinoiseries, circa 1750-60

The double leaf is divided into two concentric bands, a format known as cabriolet after the fashionable cabriolet carriages of the period. Both upper and lower bands are richly decorated in the chinoiserie style.

Chinoiserie Fantasy, circa 1780

The double paper leaf is decorated entirely in straw work, a technique that is thought to have originated in the East and brought to Europe in the Seventeenth Century.

Although decorated entirely in straw work, the design of figures, pagodas and pavilions is reminiscent of paintings by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728-1808) a major exponent of the chinoiserie style.

Fan Painters
Even though the artistry of fan painting reaches a zenith during the Eighteenth Century, the discipline continues to lack prestige. Of fan painters there is still much to learn: simply facilitators working anonymously, fan painters at this time rarely sign their work. It is, however, via records maintained by Sevres that we learn the names of a number of eighteenth century fan painters called in to do work on porcelain and who specialised in painting flowers, landscapes and decorative borders.

The Marriage of Louis & Marie Antoinette, circa 1770

The double paper leaf is painted on the recto with portraits of the Dauphin (later Louis XVI of France) and Marie Antoinette of Austria, and their respective coats of arms against a blue background.

The vivid blue ground is painted with sprays of flowers in a style reminiscent of Sevres porcelain – in fact, at this time, Sevres produced wares in a similarly distinctive colour known as 'bleu celeste'.

This fan comemorates the marriage of the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette (who became Queen of France) on May 16, 1770.

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