The earliest brisé fans came from China and Japan, and were exported to Europe in large quantities from the 17th century on. European brisé fans, made in imitation of the delicate Chinese wooden and ivory fans but distinctly Western in style, were composed of thinly-sliced sticks of bone, horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, or ivory that were often elaborately carved, gilded, and painted. Sometimes plain, undecorated ivory sticks imported from China were completely painted in the style of a leaf fan. The East India Company imported large numbers of plain and carved brisé fans in ivory and tortoiseshell well into the 19th century.
The brisé fan was popular in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but was never as widespread as the folding fan with a painted and pleated leaf. However, in the late 18th and early 19th century smaller fans had come into vogue, and the brisé style fan, perfect for the smaller "opera" size, saw a surge in popularity. There are several beautiful brisé fans from this period in the Royal collection, including examples with the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family depicted on painted sections of pierced ivory sticks. (Click here to see an example from the Royal Collection.)
Fans of this period, following the democratic ideals of the American and French revolutions, were also made more available to the general populace through cheaper materials – bone and horn instead of the more expensive ivory and tortoiseshell, and printed rather than painted leaves. One of the reasons for the rise in popularity of the brisé fan during this period was that they were less labor-intensive, using identical sticks of a single pattern, created with a tiny jeweler's saw, with little or no decoration. But the fashionable ladies of the ton carried brisé fans as well; their simplicity echoed the general simplicity of dress. In the September 1813 issue of of La Belle Assemblée, it is noted that "plain, small ivory fans promise to supersede the beautiful painted ones mentioned in our last issue," and by November 1813 issue it is reported that "plain ivory fans are universal." Ackermann's Repository of Arts also frequently mentions "carved ivory fans" in the descriptions of its fashion plates of the period. We can understand all such references to mean a brisé fan.
As fashion became more elaborate and fussy in the 1830s and beyond, the small, simple brisé fan became less popular, though some very elaborate brisé fans with neo-Gothic style sticks were made in the 1830s and 1840s. Brisé style fans continue to be made, and are most commonly seen today in faux-ivory plastic fans.
The brisé fans of the early 19th century have an unmistakably Regency style in the carving that sets them apart from fans imported from the Far East. The same elements seen in Regency furniture, architecture, glasswork, ironwork, etc can be seen in the carved designs of brisé fans: delicate motifs and restrained elements from classical Greece and Rome, bolder forms drawn from ancient Egypt and Asia, and the rigid geometric order of neoclassicism. Sometimes the carving and/or piercing is so delicate that it is decoration enough. (See Figures 1 and 5.) Most often, though, there is some painting of the sticks, frequently with simple swags of flowers. (See Figures 2, 4, and 6.) Some fans have distinct areas left undecorated so that little vignettes or portraits could be painted in the reserves. (See Figure 3.) It is not uncommon to have both sides of the fan painted, often with different designs.
All of the fans in this collection are assumed to be English unless otherwise stated. Each are of a similar size, with sticks measuring 6 to 6 ½ inches, the fully opened fan measuring approximately 12 inches.
For more information on brisé fans, see the following sources:
Hélène Alexander, The Fan Museum, Fan Museum Trust, 2001.
Hélène Alexander, Fans, Shire Publications, 1995.
Nancy Armstrong, A Collector's History of Fans, Clarkson N. Potter Publishers, 1974.
Anna G. Bennett, Fans in Fashion, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1981.
Anna G. Bennett, Unfolding Beauty: The Art of the Fan, Thames & Hudson, 1988.
Avril Hart and Emma Taylor, Fans, Victoria & Albert Publications, 1998.
Alexander F. Tcherviakov, Fans, Parkstone Press, 1998.
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