Fans of the 18th Century - de Young Museum - 2018.08.09

History of the de Young museum.

The de Young Museum originated as the Fine Arts Building, which was constructed in Golden Gate Park for the California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894. The chair of the exposition organizing committee was Michael H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Fine Arts Building was designed in a pseudo–Egyptian Revival style and decoratively adorned with images of Hathor, the cow goddess. Following the exposition, the building was designated as a museum for the people of San Francisco. Over the years, the de Young has grown from an attraction originally designed to temporarily house an eclectic collection of exotic oddities and curiosities to the foremost museum in the western United States concentrating on American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania and Africa.

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Overview of the Exhibit

Fans have served as accessories of fashion and utility since antiquity but reached their peak production and use in eighteenth-century Europe. Made from and embellished by precious materials such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, and silver and gold leaf, eighteenth-century fans also featured designs that reflected the spirit of their times. Fans addressed current events as well as themes of broad interest, including biblical and mythological tales and romanticized domestic and pastoral vignettes. Fans of the Eighteenth Century explores this quintessential period of fan production through a selection of examples from the permanent collection.

In Renaissance Italy, pearl-encrusted baubles were worn by brides to represent their purity; in Napoleonic France, no item was more coveted than a cashmere paisley shawl, which signified unimaginable wealth. But few historic totems carried as much symbolic weight as the handheld decorative fan. In fact, the ornate, dramatic, and once-ubiquitous item—which just so happens to be the subject of a new exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum—may be one worth resurrecting. Not only are fans beautiful and practical objects to carry on a warm day, they are the means to a secret language that has been largely forgotten with time.

During their heyday, lace, mother-of-pearl, and gold leaf–coated fans surpassed all other accessories in this regard. “Records suggest that as early as the 18th century there was a discussion of these fan languages,” Laura Camerlengo, associate curator of costume and textile arts at the de Young, and organizer of this exhibition, explains. And while Camerlengo notes that the earliest such language was made up of individual letters, she adds that later variations were really “extensions of body language.” The first semiofficial gestural fan language was written by a Spanish man known simply as Fenella. It didn’t take long for Parisian fan-maker Duvelleroy, whose finery-filled shop is still in business, to translate his work into English, and distribute the information on individual cards. The use of this so-called “Secret Language of the Fan” varied from country to country, but today, many of Fenella’s original instructions are still circulated in print.

In other words, you too can easily learn a few new moves for the hot and humid summer that lies ahead—and who knows? The ability to signal “come talk to me” while battling the heat in a sweltering subway car might just come in handy.

  • “Come talk to me” Carry fan in left hand
  • “I wish to speak to you” Touch tip of fan with finger
  • “You have won my love” Hold shut fan to the heart
  • “Do not betray our secret” Covering left ear with open fan
  • “Follow me” Carry fan in right hand in front of face
  • “We are being watched” Twirl fan in left hand
  • “I am married” Fan slowly
  • “I am engaged” Fan quickly
  • “I am sorry” Draw fan across eye
  • “You have changed” Draw fan across forehead
  • “I hate you” Draw fan through hand
  • “Do you love me?” Present fan shut
  • “I love you” Draw fan across cheek
  • “I love another” Twirl fan in right hand
  • “You are cruel” Open and shut fan
  • “Yes” Rest fan on right cheek
  • “No” Rest fan on left cheek
  • “Kiss me” Hold fan handle to lips

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  Charles Walter Buntjer

San Francisco California
Created on: 2018.08.09  

Updated on: 2018.08.09