Unique Texas Scene—Exquisite Eighteenth-Century Hand-Painted Fan

La Salle Expedition & Map of Matagorda Bay, Texas

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540. [TEXAS: LA SALLE EXPEDITION]. Hand-made, vividly hand-painted folded paper fan on 24 carved ivory sticks and guards (monture) with mother of pearl inlay, gilt, and uncolored stones, elements of Chinoiserie and, simultaneously, of the Gothic revival. Radius is 27.5 cm; fan is ca. 55 cm fully opened at 180 degrees. [England? ca. 1750?]. Except for a few minor separations in the paper, two minor cracks in the ivory, and small losses of color at a few folds, in very fine condition. An amazing survival in working order of a unique item of Americana.

     The front of the fan, where the main scene is depicted, is divided into two elements, the foreground and the background. The foreground is itself divided into three thematic segments. At the lower right is a small, engraved map of the Texas coast entitled “Nouv Mexico” showing the area between the Colorado River and the Trinidad (i.e., present-day Trinity River) but concentrating on present-day Matagorda Bay, which is called “B. San Bernard ou St. Louis par les Fr.” Names on the map include “Taijas,” “Bidaye,” “Cenis” (all Indian tribes) and “Sablonniere R.” (Garcitas Creek?). The map, apparently after Delisle, was engraved on a separate sheet of paper, and then mounted on the fan paper. It shows the area where La Salle landed and established his colony. This segment of the image is further illustrated by reclining natives, a European, and several bales of goods.

     The middle segment of the fan is the busiest and is dominated by two Europeans, one of whom seems to be in supplication to the other one. Around them is a busy scene of Natives and Europeans hauling tied bundles of goods.

     The left segment of the fan is far  lower left by three figures, one of whom is recumbent with a musket. He is accompanied by a child and another figure holding a lit pipe. They all recline against or sit on bundles.

     The background is a busy naval scene, showing several ships, a few with oars. Two on the left have several people aboard, including numerous women and children, presumably colonists since there would be little other reason for such people to be included in the scene. A pair of ships bear gilt pineapples on their sterns, the traditional symbols of good luck. The ships, though reminiscent of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century types, are basically stylized vessels.

     The whole scene is surrounded by putti who play in the clouds. The sticks themselves are delicately carved, pierced with small figures, and painted, with the six center sticks showing a flute player surrounded by trees and birds. They reflect elements of Chinoiserie.

     The back of the fan shows a much calmer shoreline scene with a woman seated in foreground, while several men tend to a small boat in the near distance. Depictions of flowers, foliage, and architectural elements complete the view. The supports are attached to this side and have been painted, as well. The sticks, however, are unpainted on this side.

     Forensic examination of the paints used on the fan indicate that one of the colors is Prussian blue, which came into existence in 1704 and was widely available by 1722. The green paint incorporates yellow ochre, an eighteenth-century ingredient supplanted by chrome yellow in the nineteenth century. Its presence especially argues for an eighteenth-century date. Staff at The Fan Museum in England date the fan as ca. 1750 and believe the structure proves it to be English. Although its complete provenance is unknown, it was found in Spain.

     The details on the small map comport fairly exactly with those shown on Delisle’s 1718 Carte de la Louisiane, including the names of the rivers, the bay, and the Indian tribes, all of which are shown both here and on Delisle. (De Fer’s 1701 and Mount and Page’s 1702 maps of the area are entirely different.) Word of La Salle’s venture would have reached the English public no later than 1714, when Joutel’s original French description of the colony was published as A Journal of the Last Voyage Perform’d by Monsr. de la Sale, but the map in that book, as did its French predecessor of which it is a copy, lacked the details shown on the present map.

     Utterly the only events of any interest that happened in the Matagorda Bay area during the late seventeenth century were the founding of La Salle’s colony, Spain’s repeated and determined efforts to destroy it, and Spain’s final settlement of the area. The presence of the map of this area and the obvious scene of ships unloading and colonists aboard them would seem to indicate fairly clearly that the scene depicted is La Salle’s landing in Texas. The scene is, of course, inaccurate, because La Salle arrived at the area with only three ships, one of which returned to France and the other two of which were wrecked. Other elements, such as black-skinned natives dressed in showy feathers, are totally fanciful. The fan is, nevertheless, a spectacular example of the type of mythical thinking and representation that went into many depictions of European colonial enterprises, no matter what the facts on the ground were. Similar flights of fancy would occur later when the French attempted a second Texas colony, the Champ d'Asile.

     René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687), a famous French explorer known for his exploits in Canada and the Mississippi River Valley, landed at Matagorda Bay in early 1685. Because of misfortunes, overwork, starvation, and La Salle’s death at the hands of one of his own men, the colony was finally destroyed in 1688 by the Natives, who spared only a few colonists, most of them eventually recovered by the Spanish expedition and its successors sent to wipe out the colony in 1689. Why La Salle settled where he did when he ostensibly intended to settle on the Mississippi River is a matter of ongoing debate.

     The fan is accompanied by a complete forensic report on its physical elements and composition by McCrone Associates, Inc.(December 31, 2011).


Sold. Hammer: $30,000.00; Price Realized: $36,750.00.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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