TO an ancient emperor with attentive slaves, the fan was a welcome and efficient cooling device. To the Victorian traveler, it was a desirable souvenir and a useful fashion accessory. But to many artists, it has long been an effective inclusion in a painting, and a choice item with which to display their talents. We have only to look to Whistler to note the skillful way in which he significantly included a fan in a painting. His portrait of his friend and admirer Theodore Duret, a French journalist and art critic, is an arresting example of his artful usage of a fan.
In the portrait ``Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret,'' his friend is formally attired in black, and carries a cape with a flesh-colored lining and a brilliant red, folded fan, as though just returning from a gala event. Whistler felt that a portrait should express the subject's personality. And the red of the fan draws dramatic attention to Duret's handsome, but sensitive face.
Whistler, it is recognized, had an aptitude for knowing what to put in a painting and what to leave out. When he portrayed Jo Heffernan, his young mistress, in ``Symphony in White No. 22: The Little White Girl,'' he demonstrated this ability by adroitly posing Jo holding a fan with colorful Japanese decoration. The inclusion of the fan projected his admiration for the simple elegance of Far Eastern art as he harmoniously combined it with the romanticism of the pre-Raphaelite artists.
One of Whistler's contemporaries, J.J. Tissot, also made charming use of the fan in his paintings. He frequently painted the rich of the late 19th century as they busily enjoyed their leisure - yachting, dancing, picnicking, conversing. His polished presentation, ``Too Early,'' depicts a partly empty ballroom with several young ladies who are early arrivals at the ball variously using their fans as they converse with early male arrivals.
In another fin de siecle portrayal of the rich and fashionable - ``A Soiree'' - Jean Beraud intriguingly shows a young lady shielding her face from other guests as she converses with a young man sitting behind her.
Fans have been made throughout the centuries of many materials - paper, lace, leather, ivory, silk - for many purposes, and are mainly rigid or folding. The rigid, or hand-screen type fan includes the round ``puff-ball'' favored by European ladies in both the 14th and 15th centuries. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who popularized fans in England, hangs in the National Gallery in London, and pictures the Queen holding a ``puff ball'' fan.
In the 17th century, portraits of European women frequently presented them holding a fan, many of which were folding ones with ivory sticks embellished by artisans of the period. In the early 1600s, when Pocahontas became Mistress Rolfe, she posed for her portrait fashionably dressed as a Virginian planter's wife and holding a feathered fan.
But it was during the 18th century that the lovely folding fan, the brise (composed entirely of sticks held together with ribbon threaded through each stick), made its appearance. And the use of the brise and other fans became a social attribute for the graceful conveying of emotions and thoughts. When the fan was touched with the tip of the finger, it meant, ``I wish to speak with you.'' When it was touched to the lips, it said, ``Kiss me.''
It was at this time that such eminent artists as Jean Antoine Watteau choicely decorated fans with romantic and pastoral depictions. Fragonard and Boucher, both pupils of Watteau, also became associated with fan decoration. And it is hardly unexpected that during the last decade of the 18th century, Angelica Kauffman, who also decorated furniture, lent her artistry to the fan.
Some artisans of those years concerned themselves with the embellishing of the sticks of fans. The widely spaced sticks that became evident during the reign of Louis XVI in the 1700s, were, at times, decorated with three medallions. One ivory fan of the period had tiny medallion decorations that resembled Wedgewood jasperware cameos.
During Victorian years, when fans were a fashion necessity, fashion illustrators from ``Harper's Bazar'' (as it was then spelled) invariably drew women holding fans to complement a fall or evening toilette.
But surely one of the loveliest fans of the Art Nouveau period is a Faberg'e creation in the delightful Forbes Collection of Faberg'e artifacts. Comprised of a silk-mounted leaf with a silk panel inset painted with a scene gallante signed A.E. Begn'ee, it is embroidered with gold and silver sequins and has mother-of-pearl sticks decorated with gilt scrolls. The front guard (stick), however, has the opulence of salmon and pink enamel with applied and entwined laurel festoons in chased gold and rose diamonds. The gold swing handle of the fan is also set with rose diamonds.
The 18th century was the heyday of the painted fan. And these and other decorated fans of succeeding years not only charmingly express the artistry of their various eras, but also delineate the way in which artists significantly included them in paintings and richly chronicled for us long-ago life styles and fashions.