In Focus

Making and Selling Fans in the 18th Century

A 1747 description of the art of fan painting in The London Tradesman dismissed it as "an ingenious trifling Branch of the Painting Business. It requires no great Fancy, nor much Skill in Drawing or Painting to make a Workman; a Glare of Colors is more necessary than a polite Invention; Though now and then, if he is able to sketch out some Emblematical Figure, or some pretty quaint Whim, he has a Chance to please better than one who is not so adroit."[1] Despite this writer's estimation, the exquisite craftsmanship of the 18th-century fans that have survived make it clear that sophisticated consumers sought more than a simple "Glare of Colors." The best fans demonstrate a delicacy of handling that rivals the work of a miniaturist, ingenuity in adapting well-known paintings to the unusual format of a fan leaf, and a strong sense of aesthetic harmony in uniting a figural subject with its decorative embellishments.

The talents of the best fan makers did not go unnoticed by contemporary observers. In March 1781, the novelist and playwright Fanny Burney recorded in her journal a visit to the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was preceded by a visit to "see some beautiful fans painted by Poggi, from designs of Sir Joshua, Angelica [Kaufmann], [Benjamin] West, and [Giovanni Battista] Cipriani, on leather. They are, indeed, more delightful than can be imagined." In Paris, the baronne d'Oberkirch described a visit to the "hovel" of a fan maker named Méré, who "painted subjects in gouache with such skill that neither Boucher nor Watteau has ever done the like."[2]

The talented men and women who made fans in the 18th century were mostly anonymous artisans, and few names have been recorded. Though fans can often be dated based on their form, style, subject matter, or materials, they were seldom signed and are thus almost impossible to attribute to an individual craftsperson or workshop. In most cases, fans were composed of a variety of materials that were worked separately by specialized artisans and only brought together late in the manufacturing process. The component parts might have been produced in another country, or even on another continent. Carved ivory sticks were made in India and China and imported to Europe by the hundreds of thousands in the 17th and 18th centuries, and fine Italian fan leaves painted with mythological subjects were highly desirable in the English market, where they might be mounted on locally carved sticks.

In England, fan makers had been organized in 1709 as the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers, while in France, the lucrative business was split between several guilds. The guild of comb makers and inlayers, who made all sorts of small carved goods of wood or ivory, successfully petitioned for the exclusive right to make the fan sticks. The guild of Master Painters and Sculptors (not the painters of the Académie de St. Luc, as has often been claimed) secured the right to paint leaves, while the guild of Master Fan Makers, maîtres éventaillistes, was created in 1677 and granted the exclusive right to make fan leaves and assemble the finished products. Though 18th-century fans were still made entirely by hand in the workshops of skilled artisans, it is important to note that subcontracting and serial production were already essential elements of the manufacturing process.

Normally, fashion merchants, the marchands de mode, had the exclusive right to sell fans, but in practice, almost everyone involved in their manufacture or in the marketing of luxury goods sought opportunities to reach consumers directly. Fans could be found for sale in milliner or jewelers' shops, or in the glamorous boutiques of luxury merchants, the marchands merciers. The marchands merciers also stocked the component parts of fans--guards, sticks, and leaves--in order to allow a measure of customization for their clientele.[3] Fans could also be purchased directly (though illegally) from fan makers, and were even sold on the street by peddlers, who often lingered around churches, where female customers were likely to congregate.

Clearly, there was a vast difference between the fan purchased at the boutique of a marchand mercier in the rue St. Honoré or in the arcades of the Palais Royale, the premier destinations for luxury shopping in Paris, and the fan sold by a peddler on the street. Fans made with cheaper materials (paper or silk leaves rather than vellum; bone or wood sticks rather than ivory) or fans painted by less skilled artisans could be sold at a more affordable price. Elaborate fans could easily cost fifty to one hundred livres (at a time when a linen shirt cost about ten livres in Paris), whereas simpler fans made of wood and decorated with some ivory or gilding might cost six livres, or even less. In England, the cheapest fans, imported from China, were priced at three pence in 1750, approximately what a skilled workman could earn in one hour.[4] In other words, during the course of the 18th century fans became an affordable luxury, something that almost anyone with a small amount of disposable income and a desire to imitate the fashionable habits of the aristocracy might acquire.

[1] R. Campbell, The London Tradesman (London: T. Gardner, 1747) 211, quoted in Bertha de Vere Green, A collector's Guide to Fans over the Ages (London: Frederick Muller, 1975), 199.

[2] Quoted in Françoise de Perthuis and Vincent Meylan. Évantails (Paris, Hermé, 1989), 44.

[3] Carolyn Sargentson, "The manufacture and marketing of luxury goods: the marchands merciers of late 17th- and 18th- century Paris," in Luxury Trades and Consumerism in Ancien Régime Paris: Studies in teh History of teh Skilled Workforce, eds. Robert Fox and Anthony Turner (London: Ashgate, 1998), 112-113 and n. 63.

[4]Ivison Wheatley, The Language of the Fan: an exhibition at Fairfax House. York, July 1st to October 31st, 1989 (York: York Civic Trust, 1989), 10.

Excerpt from

Heather MacDonald, A Painting in the Palm of Your Hand, [Brochure] 2007.

Web Resources

Dallas Museum of Art
Read more about the 2007 DMA exhibition A Painting in the Palm of Your Hand.

Fan Association of North America
Watch a demonstration of the language of fans at the 30th Assemblage of the Fan Association of North America.