Folding Fan Depicting La Salle’s Expedition to Texas
Maker unknown, Mid-18th century
This hand-made, hand-painted folded paper fan, features twenty-four carved ivory sticks and guards (monture) with mother of pearl inlay, gold leaf, and uncolored stones. Additionally, elements of Chinoiserie (fanciful European interpretations of Chinese styles) and, simultaneously, of the Gothic revival are present.
The Fan Museum in England dates this fan to c. 1740. They also believe the structure of the fan suggests it was made in England even though it was originally found in Spain. Forensic examination of the paints used on the fan indicate that one of the colors is Prussian blue. The color came into existence in 1704 and was widely available by 1722. The green paint incorporates yellow ochre, an 18th century paint that was later discontinued. Its presence especially argues for an 18th century date of origin.
The fan’s ivory sticks are delicately carved, pierced with small figures, and painted. The design on the center six sticks, depicts a flute player surrounded by trees and birds.
The front of the fan is divided into two elements, the foreground and the background.
The foreground itself is separated into three thematic segments. The left segment of the fan features three figures reclining on bundles: a man with a musket, man holding a lit pipe and a child. The middle segment of the fan is the busiest and is dominated by two Europeans, one of whom seems to be supplicating to the other. Around them, Natives and Europeans are hauling tied bundles of goods. Finally, the right segment with the Nouv Mexico (New Mexico) map, shows the area where La Salle landed and established his colony. The area depicted is between the Colorado River and the Trinidad (Trinity) River but concentrates on Matagorda Bay, then named B. San Bernard ou St. Louis par les Fr (Bay San Bernardo or St. Louis by the French). The map was modeled after Guillaume d’Isle’s 1718 Carte de la Louisiane, including the names of rivers, bays, and Indian tribes. It was engraved on a separate sheet of paper and then mounted onto the fan paper. The segment is further illustrated with reclining natives, a European, and several bales of goods.
The background is a busy naval scene, showing several ships. Two vessels on the left have people aboard, including numerous women and children. The ships bear gilt pineapples on their sterns, a traditional symbol of good luck. The ships are stylized vessels, reminiscent of 17th and early 18th century types. Putti (chubby male children that resemble angels) play in clouds surrounding the entire scene.
The back of the fan shows a much calmer shoreline scene with a woman seated in the foreground, while several men tend to a small boat in the near distance. Depictions of flowers, foliage, and architectural elements are also present.
The man whose adventures inspired this fanciful creation, René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (1643 – 1687), was a French nobleman and explorer. He made four expeditions throughout North America (1678- 1687). When he attempted to find the mouth of the Mississippi River, he misjudged the location and landed in Matagorda Bay, Texas. There he established Fort Saint Louis. Over the next two years, La Salle led his men across the Texas countryside in search of the Mississippi River. According to his detractors, La Salle’s haughtiness alienated even his staunchest allies during this period. His men, weary and stranded in an unforgiving landscape, ambushed and killed La Salle near present-day Navasota, Texas, in 1687.