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Fans - Whisk, Sceptre, Wand, Or Weapon
More than seven thousand years ago two fan bearers carried long handled ceremonial fans of half moon shape at the festival of King Narmer who ruled before the first dynasty of Egypt's kings. Centuries later, but still nearly three thousand years before Christ, Emperor Eseim Yuan "invented" the fan for China.
About 2600 years ago a bas relief was carved showing Assyria's king, Ashurbanipal, and his Queen, supping in a garden attended by slaves wielding "fly whisks" that looked like limp whisk brooms. Probably even then, across the world, the peacock feather fans of Yucatan were stirring the air about some pre Mayan throne. Certainly Cortes was impressed with the "fine fans" sent along with jade and the silver and gold ornaments, as presents from the trusting Montezuma.
Arabian Nights put fans in the hands of seductive women. Paintings on Greek vases show women with fans, heart shaped like a poplar leaf, or half moon shape and of peacock feathers - Juno's symbol of luxury.
Bright colored papyrus or rare birds' feathers in carved ivory handles were fashionable when Cleopatra furled her fan of sacred ibis feathers, perfumed with iris and fixed to a handle of amber.
Fans for Women, Biblical Farmers, and Warriors
Far from being merely the wand of seductive women or the insignia of emperors, fans were common to people in hot climates or those who must fan fires for altar or home. Chicago's Natural History Museum shows a crude leather leaf with a carved wood handle made by a Congo tribe. A Nigerian feather fan has its quills laced together with sinews in a split wooden handle. Fiji Island people split and dyed cocoanut leaves and wove them into black and white leaf-shaped fans.
The ceremonial fan of peacock feathers in a chalice on a long handle shows up in ancient bas reliefs. So too does the tuft of ostrich feathers. Roman Vestals fanned their sacred fires. The Christian Church had two flabellifers to fan priest and "shoo flies" from the bread and wine until about the 14th century. Biblical farmers used fans to blow the chaff from the grain, as do primitive farmers yet in parts of the world.
Warriors' fans of iron, brass or bronze, beautiful as inlaid armor, denoted rank and ordered troops forward with the same verve as a Western sword. On the lighter side, the Roman male out to pitch a little woo, carried a small fan of perfumed wood or ivory. European dandies used folding pocket fans in their courting. Large Renaissance fans served their gentlemen as sunshades, canes, and street weapons, and even came handy coercing saucy daughters 'tis said.
Chinese Made Fan Art of Feathers, Ivory and Jewels
The Northern Chinese have long been masters of the stiff fan, using the black feathers of the eagle, the brown and tan of the bustard, the shining white of the duck, or brilliant peacock feathers. These are set in handles of carved white elephant tusk, green dyed walrus ivory, plain or lacquered bamboo, or carved blackwood, often ornamented with jade, coral, or lapis lazuli.
South China developed the bamboo and palm leaf. The Nianchu dynasty used fiddle shaped fans of silk or woven ivory, embroidered or painted with flowers and birds, butterflies and fungi, or with landscapes. The split bamboo frames were covered with silk braid. Rims of lacquered wood or ivory were also used.
The Japanese claim the invention of the folding fan in the 7th century A.D., imitating the bat's wing or the natural folding of the palm leaf. Certainly they brought the use of the fan in formal or informal ceremony to its greatest perfection.
Trade took the folding fan to China where feathers, or black or white paper, or paper dusted with gold, were painted in the Oriental manner and mounted on the usual lovely frames. China's wars and trade carried the folding fan to the Middle East, whence it reached Italy. Catherine de Medici brought it to France. There, under the protection of the court and the Fan Guild, the folding fan reached its highest artistry.
Favorite Fan Frames and Leaves
Fan frames of silver or gold were favored by the rich, but frames of ivory, motherof-pearl, tortoise shell or perfumed woods were enriched with carving, piercing, inlaying, lacquering and painting. Some guards were fitted with mirrors, patch boxes or lenses. Leaves or screens were made of feathers, woven ivory, paper, parchment, silk, linen, lace or leather. Vellum was a favorite.
Shaved thin, it was called "chicken skin." The paintings were generally done with gouache-a mixture of glue and paint that folded without cracking.
The world still adores French fans, from the delicate paintings by landscape and portrait masters to the exquisite real lace leaves of Point d'Alencon, Rose Point, or Chantilly with threads so gossamer they had to be fashioned over colored cloth. Sometimes these laces were embellished with pearls or other jewels, or combined with satin or painted gauze as in Madame Du Barry's fan with its painted panel of a sleeping child.
Brise fans were the overlapping sticks, carved, pierced, lacquered or painted, and held together by a ribbon. Transparent varnish, called Vernis Martin because it was invented by Guilliame Martin, varnisher to King Louis XV, sometimes covered these painted brise fans. One such, made for Madame de Montespan, showed her as Venus surrounded by nymphs.
Fan Styles Expressed Social Conditions
Fans reflected the social moods - the splendors of French, English, and Italian courts; Spain's harsh inquisition, or her colorful bull fights; and the utter unloveliness of the French Revolution. Fans for church, betrothals, marriages, births, and mournings, were keyed in color and elaboration to their use.
The Crusaders brought back the flag, key, weathervane, banner, or, called in Spain, the bridal fan. A virgin's was white on a silver pole; the married woman's was in bright colors, sometimes enriched with jew els. Lorgnette fans had lenses at the top of the guards or in the rivet, for use as we use opera glasses.
Cabriolet fans, consisting of two or three narrow leaves with spaces between, allowed the owner to peep through in modesty at handsome stranger or risque show. Mask or carnival fans with face-sized masks concealed the identity. History says Charlotte Cordey used one to hide her pallor when she took Jean Paul Marat's life.
Many great artists contributed to fan beauty. Hiroshige, one of the finest of landscape painters, did his compositions on paper fans for the Japanese masses. Ingres, Rosa Bonheur, Rubens, Corot, Boucher, and Watteau all left their brush strokes on fan screens. Even the modern Degas sent his famous chorus girls dancing airily across the fans that stirred in the firm young hands of our grandmothers.