THE CARVED and pierced ivory fan, like a pinned butterfly, is held still in its case at the Renwick Gallery. Even so, it looks as though only a moment ago it trembled in space, held in a pale and delicate hand. The unknown owner -- who gave herself such airs -- is now only a conjecture, a myth of memory. But her taste in fans can suggest many things.
In the mid-19th century, when she chose this fan, probably from the 100 or more fan makers then established in Paris, she picked a form that would have been correct more than half a century and several monarchs earlier. Her politics were probably Restoration. She may have danced at a ball, fan in hand, celebrating the return of the Bourbons to the throne of France. Her fan might have been a painted piece of propaganda, recalling the earlier dynasty days when life was an unending minuet -- provided, of course, you were born to the right chateau and married the right number of pieces of gold.
In Marie Antoinette's late-18th-century court, one never opened one's fan in the presence of the queen. Therefore, the guards -- the sticks on the ends -- were to be flaunted. On this fan those extremities glitter with tiny pearl, turquoise and ruby planets surrounded by radiating rays of light made of pique' metalwork, and the sticks are joined and held fast by a ruby pin.
The fan is of a type, introduced from China during the 17th century, called brise', or broken, because its sticks are joined only by a linchpin at the base and by a ribbon at the top. It is made more of air than ivory, so elaborate is its piercing. It would not have raised much of a breeze, beyond a faint, evocative waft of perfume from the fragile wrist of the Lady of the Fan.
Not content with the intricate cutwork, some forgotten artist has decorated the sticks with three watercolor scenes painted on medallions. The central scene shows a couple in a stately dance in a garden ornamented with stonework. The man, in his fashionable knee pants and floppy cap, seems fancier than his partner in her plainer gown. Perhaps he is a courtier, seducing a village maiden. She'd best beware, because those noblemen were likely only summertime lovers, leaving when the leaves fell, long before the babies arrived. But what maiden, from village or town, could resist joining in the dance of love? Two putti, festooned with garlands, romp across the other medallions, in pink clouds.
The Lady of the Fan must have used the painted scenes in her flirtations, and perhaps also as a warning to herself. She would have used the fan to hide her blushes -- or perhaps the lack of them. She might have wielded it in the elaborate language of the fan to mean more than she was willing to put into words. Life as seen through its ivory veil must have looked gentler.
"The Dance" is one of 76 fans given to the National Museum of American Art in the early 1950s by Pepita Milmore just before her death. She once lived in a grand house on Wyoming Avenue. The Milmore donation represents half of the museum's fan holdings. Lenore Gershuny, curator and author of the accompanying monograph, has chosen 90 fans from the museum's collection to be displayed in groups of 30 in three successive six-month "Fanfare" exhibits at the Renwick Gallery. The second of these, devoted to the neoclassical, brise', gothic revival and printed fans of the 19th century, closes Jan. 6.