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FRAME|WORK: A Mask Fan from Eighteenth-Century England

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, in a joint celebration of Halloween and the imminent opening of Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, we feature an extraordinary mask fan from the department of Textile Arts.

Mask fan, England, 1740–1750. Opaque watercolor on vellum; ivory sticks. Gift of Susanne King Morrison in memory of Elizabeth Brant King. 1980.66

Fans have accessorized humankind for centuries, although their primary use was utilitarian rather than sartorial. The origin of the fan is likely rooted in the basic need to cool off, but later it functioned as a tool used to cultivate wheat or as a bellow to stoke hearth fires. By the fourteenth century, however, the fan was a fashion mainstay in Europe with Italy leading the way in innovative fan design.

Associated with coquetry and secrecy, the fan’s splayed accordion served as a delicate shield. The Fine Arts Museums’ spectacular mask fan provided the highest degree of mystery and concealment, as the owner could literally hide behind the fan and peek through its cut-out eyes. There are only six mask fans known in public and private collections, each featuring the same basic composition of the central ovoid face flanked by various scenes of leisure and luxury.

In the eighteenth century, when this object was made and used, fans were far more than mere fashion accessories. Rococo society delighted in love play and intrigue, which resulted in the adoption of a fan language. By moving a fan in a specific series of motions, or by holding it in a particular position, fan-holders could silently convey complex meanings to their partner. If, for example, a young maiden twirled her fan in her left hand, it meant “we are being watched.” In this way, the fan became an invaluable tool for clandestine communication.

Fans are notoriously fragile, and unfortunately this wonderful object is not currently on display. Let it be an inspiration for your Halloween costume and a tantilizing teaser for the upcoming exhibition Masters of Venice, which opens at the de Young this Saturday, October 29.


Further Reading: Legion of Honor Selected Works and Fans in Fashion: Selections from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1981.

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