Fans and Power: a Study of four Centuries of Ladies' Portraits

Official photographs taken at G8, G20 or other world summits reveal a fact: our leaders are at a loss what to do with their hands. "Homo habilis" went up the scale of evolution thanks to his/her deftness, but once in front of a camera, our arms make us look clumsy.
Painters have had the same problem in the past. For male sitters, the artists usually chose a stately posture, with a hand resting on a sword, on a walking-stick, or on the hip to enhance a well-shaped leg.

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Various items could also be used in the background: books, manuscripts, scientific instruments, which would give the sitter the aura of a well-educated, enlighted gentleman. And of course, in the case of monarchs, the royal insignia, first among them, the sceptre.

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For women, there was no such choice: swords could not be used, and legs protruding from under a gown would have been a breach of propriety. Consequently, ladies would toy with fans, whose shape, once shut, is reminiscent of a royal sceptre.

I ) The Power of Royalty

In 1588 Elizabeth I is dressed in full regalia for the service held in Saint-Paul's to return thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But she is depicted ruling over the world in general and England in particular while holding a fan in her right hand, feet firmly planted on Oxfordshire.

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Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia, majestically holds the sceptre. Next to her is the crown. The crown is still there in the second portrait, but she now holds a fan.

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Queen Victoria and H.M. Elizabeth II both hold the sceptre on Coronation Day. 

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Yet on the official portraits of their Jubilees (1) fans have replaced the sceptre. (2)

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In France, according to the so-called Salic Law, Queens do not rule and do not hold royal insignia. The crown in the background is the only reminder of their rank - together with the fan.

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Other European Queens are depicted in the same way.

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Curiously, Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma points her fan towards the clock, as if counting the hours left before becoming Queen of Spain.

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Fans as symbols of power are also to be found in many princesses' portraits. Her fleur-de-lys dotted velvet and ermine cloak prove Mademoiselle de Sens to be of high rank: Elisabeth-Alexandrine de Bourbon-Condé, granddaughter of the Sun King. She holds her fan almost like a Field Marshall's baton.

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Spanish Infanta Isabella-Clara grasps hers with a commanding gesture: there can be no doubt as to her pedigree. Even tiny Infanta Margarita, aged three, has hers, almost as big as herself.

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The two Regent Queens of 17th century  France: Marie de Medicis and Anne of Austria are both painted with their sons - and their fans. The fan is held in the left hand, leaving the right hand free for the Child-King. But the main difference is the place of the fan in both paintings. Whereas Marie keeps her son Louis XIII and her fan quite separate, Anne holds her fan in the space between herself and little Louis XIV - so that this white shimmering fan becomes in fact the center of the painting and its most essential feature: how power links the mother to the son/ the son to the mother. While Marie's fan remains in the shadow of the velvet gown: it is well known that Marie had a taste for intrigue, behind-the-scene plots and hidden power.

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A royal mistress

Boucher was one of Mme de Pompadour's favorite artists. On the painting in the Wallace Collection, he depicts the marquise with a fan. It is a faint stroke of the brush, a mere hint of a fan. As the portrait is dated 1759, one would expect the fan to be of much larger proportions (3). But then, of course, Mme de Pompadour is not the Queen of France - only of the King's bedroom. She can have the fan, the dog but not the crown. Still, the marquise was intent on reigning over the minds of her contemporaries, as shown on Boucher's other painting.

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Mme de Pompadour is surrounded with books, papers and ink (4). On the side table, no fan but sealing wax: the Marquise is a learned woman who exchanges letters with the other wits of her time. This attitude strongly reminds us of the gentleman by Nattier (ill. 3). Could it be that Mme de Pompadour yearned after equality between men and women more than after the crown?

II ) The fan also rules at home

Fans as symbols of power are not a priviledge of royalty. Private hands also use them to emphasize gestures, enhance orders, stress their owner's authority with a flourish. One feels  that amid the billowing lace and silk, Mme Dayre's tiny gloved hands are ready to "draw" her fan like a blade to get rid of some unwanted company.

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Isabella Brant seems on the verge of slapping her husband, painter P.P. Rubens, with her very unglamourous brown fan - perhaps in retaliation for having painted her with the ugliest fan in art history (5). F. Hals lays a formidable weapon in the hands of a Dutch lady. A dagger, a carving knife couldn't be more threatening. As usual in portraits by Hals, the sitter looks high-spirited - but no doubt this lady rules over her household with an iron hand.

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III) The Power to Seduce

Other women use fans in a more subtle way. The fan becomes the accomplice of seduction, a plaything in a game of hide and seek, which helps express what one cannot or will not say or show (the so-called "language of the fan") (6). Mrs Roslin, the dominoes by Longhi, invite us to amourous games full of ambiguity...

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or totally devoid of it

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The fan is the companion of lovemaking, the faithfull ally in flirtatious situations. It is associated with the love letter, the mask and opera-glasses to evoke "Die Pariserin", the Parisienne, as the archetype of seduction.

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The woman figure may even vanish totally from the painting, as in Manet, her power of seduction remains unchanged: a fan, a love-letter, a posy, all three refer to a world dedicated to the power of love.

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IV) The Power of Wealth

On the portrait of a young lady by Berthe Morisot, the fan also refers to amourous games and seduction.

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It is a Louis XVI (or mock rococo) fan, with sticks of the "squelette" type and mount painted with three scenes in the style of Watteau's "Fêtes Galantes" - the central vignette showing two lovers in a park. Although the fan is held coquettishly to the cheek, we feel no flirtatious intent in the lady's gesture.  She looks away from us, her gaze reflecting her pensive mood, far from Mrs Roslin's seductive countenance. The fan depicted here is no longer a means of seduction, it is merely a fashion accessory, the compulsory companion of ball gowns. It highlights the fact that these ladies all belong to the same wealthy social class.
Ingres masterfully renders the display of luxury sought after by the "new rich" of the 1850's. He shows off the delicacy of a small gilt tortoise-shell brisé against the dark velvet of Mme Devauçay's dress.

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In Mme Moitessier's hand, he places costly jewel fans with gold-inlaid mother-of-pearl sticks and rivets set with precious stones.

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But the fan is held in a limp hand, barely visible among the bracelets or on the pattern of the silk dress. It merely rests on the pillow-like softness of the pink satin.

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The Arlésienne Lady by Th. Mayan, stiffly adorned in the vast expanse of her "chapelle" (7), toys uneasily with the silk tassel of her large fan. And what about the Baronne Hallez-Claparède, who doesn't even hold hers?

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Sissi's mother-of-pearl fan is only a faint glimmer to match the gossamer silk net of the dress. Winterhalter doesn't paint the portrait of the Empress of Austria, but the fashion plate of a haute couture evening gown. (8)

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Fans have lost their power. They end up in forlorn places, dainty old-fashioned objects that give a romantic touch to the picture.

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or evoke the heat of a midsummer afternoon.

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French Finance Minister Mme Christine Lagarde, 30th on Forbes' list of the most powerful people in the world, is said to always carry a fan in her handbag. But it has never been seen on the official photographs of European or world leaders.

Could it be that fans have definitely lost their power?

1) Van Dyck: Charles Ier - Louvre

2) Atelier Hyacinthe Rigaud: Louis XIV - Versailles

3) J.M. Nattier: Joseph Barbier de la Mosson - Washington

4) Sir Luke Fields: Edouard VII - Londres

5) Isaac Oliver: Elisabeth Ière - Suffolk

6) Marcus Gheerearts le Jeune: Elisabeth Ière - Londres

7) Fedor Rokotov: Catherine II - Ermitage

8) Vigilius Ericsen: Catherine II - Ermitage

9a) Sir George Hayter: la reine Victoria  9b) la reine Victoria - Londres

10a) Cecil Beaton: Elisabeth II  b) Karsh: Elisabeth II et le prince Philippe

11) Carl van Loo: Marie Leczinska - Versailles

12) Giuseppe Bonito: Marie-Amélie de Saxe, reine de Naples et d'Espagne - Madrid

13) Alexander Roslin: Marie Dorothée de Wurtemberg, future Marie Feodorovna, épouse de Paul Ier - Stockholm

14) Florent Pêcheux: Marie-Louise de Bourbon-Parme - Florence

15) J.M. Nattier: Melle de Sens - Versailles

16) Juan Pantoja De La Cruz: L'infante Isabelle Claire Eugénie - Munich

17) Velasquez: L'infante Marguerite-Thérèse - Vienne

18) Charles Martin: Marie de Médicis et son fils - Blois

19) Ecole française du XVIIe siècle: Anne d'Autriche et son fils

20) F. Boucher: Mme de Pompadour - Londres

21) F. Boucher: Mme de Pompadour - Munich

22) Claude-Emile Gleize: Mariette Dayre - Arles

23) P.P. Rubens: Isabella Brant - Berlin

24) F. Hals: Une dame flamande - Edimbourg

25) Alexander Roslin: Mme Roslin - Stockholm

26) Pietro Longhi: Colloquia tra baute - Venise

27) Moritz Jung: Cabaret Fledermaus à Vienne

28) Jordi Vall Escriu: Femme à l'éventail - collect. part.

29) Jules Chéret: Die Pariserinnen

30) Edouard Manet: Le bouquet de violettes - collect. Part.

31) Berthe Morisot: Au bal - Paris

32) J.D. Ingres: Mme Devauçay - Chantilly

33) J.D. Ingres: Mme Moitessier - Washington

34) J.D. Ingres: Mme Moitessier - Londres

35) J.D Ingres: Baronne Jams de Rothschild - collect. part.

36) Théophile Mayan: Arlésienne en toilette - Arles

37) Ed. Louis Dubufe: Baronne Hallez-Claparède - Compiègne

38) F.X. Winterhalter: Elisabeth d'Autriche - Vienne

39) David Delepianne: Claire à la guitare

40) Albert Moore: Beads - Edimbourg



1) Diamond Jubilee for Victoria in 1897.
    Silver Jubilee for H.M. the Queen in 1977.

2) Victoria is represented with Queen Charlotte's lace fan; Elizabeth with a mother-of-pearl and lace fan, either from the rich collection      assembled by Queen Mary, or from the numerous fans she recieved as wedding presents in 1947.

3) A ten-pouce fan would seem right. "Pouce" being the traditional measure of French fan-makers - worth 2.7 cm (compared to an           inch = 2.54 cm).

4) On a pastel by La Tour one can see an armillary sphere.

5) Compared, for instance, to the fan he painted in the portrait of Marquisa Brigida Spinola Doria - Washington.

6) The language of the fan, or the secret language known to everybody - since numerous "dictionaries" existed - fails to convince. In         such an exclusive society as the salon prone to gossip and keen on scandal, signalling one's feelings with a fluttering fan would have       been as tactful as waving a flag.
    Moreover the "translations" of the coded gestures sometimes reveal much naivete. For exemple "yawning behind the fan" means             "I'am tired of you" -  Has anyone ever yawned to show interest? Yet, this does not contradict the importance of the fan in flirtatious       situations.

7) Chapelle = is the name of the 4 parts of the bodice in an Arlesienne costume - stomacher, blouse, undershawl and over shawl.

8) The gown is by CH. F. Worth, the first Grand Couturier.