Fans with scenes of everyday life abound in the eighteenth century and in Japan at almost any time, so it is interesting to ponder why such subjects were more popular at one time or another or why they appear more frequently on Japanese fans than, for example, on Chinese fans.
It is always worth looking at the social scene at any one period in time and the place of the fan within those years. For example, we know that fans were expensive accessories during the 17th century and that they were mainly for the use – in Europe – of wealthy women. It is also true to say that in general, these women, from aristocratic or at least well-off families, were well-educated and knowledgeable in the classics. At this time, music, opera and theatrical performances drew on mythology and the bible for themes, as indeed did painting. It is not, therefore, surprising that fans made during the first part of the 17th century also reflect this trend as the users of fans would be well acquainted with such themes.
With a growing middle class and the advent of cheaper fans, the theme on French fans often illustrated a busy world: from the purchasing of fans at the Palais Royal [c.f. ABRAHAM BOSSE’s (1602-1676) engraving La “Galerie du Palais” in 1736] to the depiction of the “Trades of Paris” (a series of extended fan leaves in the Musee Carnavelet).
However, during the following century, many fans, particularly in France, show an increasingly idealised view of the countryside, of shepherds and shepherdesses in languorous attitudes quite unlike reality (as painted by BOUCHER 1703-1770 and others). By the end of the 18th century and with the writings of JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712-1778) advocating a return to nature, highly idealized family groups begin to disappear from the leaf of the fan, together with “bergerades”, “fete champetre” and all the amorous goings on of a society wishing to avoid the harsh realities of everyday life.
In the 19th century, the “opening up” of a world through increased trade and travel to an ever-growing number of people exposes a wide audience to the fans of China (Nos. 39-44) and Japan. Indeed, the influence of Japanese art upon the European art scene is paramount and Japanese fans – even those made for export – show an exotic, polite and totally new picture of another civilisation (Nos. 45-63).