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Triumph of Harlequin

  • Object:

    Fan

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1750 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Subleyras, Felicita Tibaldi, born 1707 - died 1777 (painter (artist))
    Subleyras, Pierre (painter)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on kid leather, with carved and pierced mother-of-pearl sticks, silvered and gilded

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Emily Beauclerk

  • Museum number:

    T.153-1920

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 2, The Wolfson Gallery, case CA2

This folding fan, with an animated illustration depicting the ‘Triumph of Harlequin’, evokes the spirit of the Venetian Carnival. It shows costumed figures associated with the Commedia dell’Arte travelling in a lively procession, with the distinctive characters of Columbine and Harlequin riding in a chariot pulled by other Harlequins. Commedia dell’Arte was a traditional Italian form of improvised theatre based on a set of stock characters. The distinctive costumes of these characters were often worn by people during Carnival in Venice, when the whole city was transformed into a costumed masquerade. In the 18th century, visitors from all over Europe flocked to the Venice Carnival and fans with lively designs, showing cavorting and masked characters would provide a fitting memento for tourists.

The quality of painting on the fan leaf is extremely fine and makes use of a distinctive stippled technique. The main design is in the same tradition as the fashionable Carnival scenes of the painter Pietro Longhi (1702-85). The reverse design, showing a tall ship anchored by a dark cliff at sunset, is equally accomplished, with the scene echoing the atmospheric landscape painting tradition established by the French artist Claude Lorraine in the 17th century.

The depiction of ‘The Triumph of Harlequin’ appears to derive from a design for a fan painted by the miniaturist Maria Felicita Subleyras (1707-1770), for Elisabeth Farnese, the Italian-born Queen of Spain who was an avid collector of fans. The composition of the scene on the fan closely mirrors that of the design, with some differences in the colouring of clothes worn by some of the figures. The design (held by the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) was completed in oil on canvas and seems to have provided the source for at least one other surviving fan.

The ‘Triumph of Harlequin’ design is connected to an oil sketch by the husband of Maria Felicita Subleyras, Pierre Subleyras. Pierre’s sketch places the lovers (Harlequin and Columbine) in a chariot upon a stage with an elaborate architectural backdrop of a triumphal arch, rather than the outdoor landscape seen on the fan. The theatricality of the scene is also increased by the inclusion of an audience in boxes and musicians in the orchestra pit, creating the impression of an performance in a theatre. It has been suggested that Pierre provided the initial idea for the design, which Felicita then developed and modified, but this cannot be confirmed.

Felicita’s fan design is also found repeated, with some variations, in a painting by Hubert Robert (formerly held by the Galerie Cailleux, Paris), who developed the design into a full easel-painting. This is interesting evidence of the duplication of a high-quality fan design and provides an indication of the popularity of the Commedia dell’Arte characters that captured the imagination of audiences, inspiring artists and designers throughout Europe.

Physical description

A folding fan with a pleated mount of kid leather, supported on sticks of carved and pierced mother-of-pearl, silvered and gilded. The kid leather mount has been decorated on both sides with designs applied in watercolour. The quality of painting on both sides of the fan leaf is extremely fine.

The main design illustrates the ‘Triumph of Harlequin’. It depicts a triumphal procession of Commedia dell’Arte characters with a carriage on an open-air terrace. A group of Harlequins cavort around the car, which is being pulled by other Harlequins, in which is seated the figure of Columbine. Three women wearing dresses with the harlequin pattern accompany the party, each appearing to be propositioned by a Harlequin. A flight of steps guarded by stone lions and flanked by fountains frames the central scene of the car.
The design on the reverse shows a tall ship alongside a smaller sailing boat, anchored near a dark cliff. To the left of the scene is a wide rowing boat containing three Harlequins, one of whom is holding an open fan.

When open, the exposed blades of the sticks show a design of three cartouches containing golden figures surrounded by scrolls and undulating stems of golden flowers. The guard-sticks each show the same design of a golden figure holding a lyre, leaf scrolls and flowers. The end of the pivot (from which the sticks open out) is protected by button.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

ca. 1750 (made)

Artist/maker

Subleyras, Felicita Tibaldi, born 1707 - died 1777 (painter (artist))
Subleyras, Pierre (painter)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on kid leather, with carved and pierced mother-of-pearl sticks, silvered and gilded

Dimensions

Length: 11.75 in guard Taken from acquisition record, Width: 21.63 in widest point When open. Taken from acquisition record., Height: 308 mm tallest point When open. Measured by Conservation 2012., Width: 532 mm widest point When open. Measured by Conservation 2012.

Object history note

The depiction of ‘The Triumph of Harlequin’ appears to derive from a design for a fan painted by the Roman miniaturist Maria Felicita Subleyras for Elisabeth Farnese. This design (in oil on canvas) is now held by the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. A copy of this maquette is also recorded as being in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

The design now at the Musée des Augustins entered that museum in 1955 from the heirs of Nicolas-Joseph Marcassus, Baron de Puymaurin, who had acquired it at the Toulouse Salon in 1773. In the Salon livret the work was said to have come from the estate of M. le Chavalier de Lassalle and described as ‘Esquisse d’un eventail peint en miniature pour la Reine d’Espagne par Madame Thibald de Subleiras de l’academie de Saint Luc de Rome.’ Although the Salon livret does not describe the subject of the fan, it seems highly probable that it is the design by Maria Felicita Subleyras now at the Musée des Augustins. This design is recorded as being exhibited at the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of Toulouse in 1780.

The oil sketch by Pierre Subleyras (now held by Colnaghi, London) is first recorded in the 1756 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga, who owned eight other pictures by Subleyras. This sketch has added spandrels, suggestive of panelling, which convert it from a fan design into an apparent architectural design, indicating that it may have been intended to be incorporated into a decorative scheme. While the picture is too narrow to have functioned as an overdoor, it is has been suggested that it may have once hung as the upper part of a boiserie panel, given the relatively narrow widths of eighteenth-century French panelling. In an article in their 2010 catalogue ‘Colnaghi Old Master Paintings 2010’ [see references], Colnaghi propose that it ‘is probable that [Pierre] Subleyras provided the original idea, which was developed with modifications (in particular the addition of a landscape background) by his wife.’

Hubert Robert’s easel-painting version of the subject was originally thought to be by Watteau but published as Robert by Marianne Roland-Michel [‘Notes on a painting by Hubert Robert formerly attributed to Watteau’, Burlington Magazine, [Supplement], 102, [November 1960], pp. ii-iii.]. His painting clearly draws on Maria Felicita Subleyras’ design rather than that of her husband.

A footnote in the article from ‘Colnaghi Old Master Paintings 2010’ regarding Robert’s painting reads as follows:
‘Roland-Michel does not appear to have been aware of the existence of the Colnaghi picture and therefore assumed that Mme. Subleyras, who was not known for the originality of her compositions, must have been copying the work of the young Hubert Robert rather than vice-versa. However, Méjanes and Haméry think it much more likely that the young Robert took his cue from Maria Tibaldi and, apart from the fact that this works much better chronologically, it seems much more plausible also that she should have taken the idea for her design from her husband than from a young, and relatively untried, visitor to Rome.’

There is an etching print made after Felicita Tibaldi Subleyras’ fan design in the collection of the British Museum (No. 1869,0410.2450), giving the whole design in reverse.

Descriptive line

Fan, Triumph of Harlequin, watercolour on kid leather, with carved and pierced mother-of-pearl sticks, silvered and gilded, design painted by Maria Felicita Subleyras, Italy, ca.1750

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

An article discussing the related oil sketch by Maria Felicita Subleyras’ husband, Pierre Subleyras.
Colnaghi Old Master Paintings 2010 [catalogue] London, United Kingdon, 2012 P68-71
The relevant text reads as follows:
‘The fan illustrated in plate 29, usually entitled ‘The Triumph of Harlequin’, evokes the spirit of Carnival. Its subject appears to derive from a design for a fan painted by Felicita Tibaldi Subleyras, a Roman artist, for Elisabeth Farnese, the Italian-born Queen of Spain. This unusual design, in oil on canvas, is in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, and seems to have provided the source for at least one other surviving fan as well as the V&A’s example.

This is interesting evidence of the duplication of a high-quality fan. We cannot know who purchased each example, but it is hardly surprising that it should have been in demand. Very finely painted in watercolour on kid, using a curious stippled technique, the sheer quality of this fan would satisfy a collector of art, and the design, which Subleyras based in turn on a painting by Hubert Robert (1733-1808), is in the same tradition as the fashionable Carnival scenes of Pietro Longhi (1702-85). The scene on the reverse is equally fine, showing a tall ship anchored near a dark cliff. For a tourist, however, the dark masks and vibrantly coloured clothes, together with the gleam of the mother-of-pearl sticks, would be a fitting memento of the excitement of the Venice Carnival.’
Avril Hart and Emma Taylor, Fans, London : V&A Publications, 1998. p59

Production Note

The depiction of ‘The Triumph of Harlequin’ appears to derive from a design for a fan painted by the miniaturist Maria Felicita Subleyras (1707-1770), for Elisabeth Farnese, the Italian-born Queen of Spain who was an avid collector of fans. The composition of the scene on the fan closely mirrors that of the design, with some differences in the colouring of clothes worn by some of the figures. The design (held by the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) was completed in oil on canvas and seems to have provided the source for at least one other surviving fan.

The ‘Triumph of Harlequin’ design is connected to an oil sketch by the husband of Maria Felicita Subleyras, Pierre Subleyras. Pierre’s sketch places the lovers (Harlequin and Columbine) in a chariot upon a stage with an elaborate architectural backdrop of a triumphal arch, rather than the outdoor landscape seen on the fan. It has been suggested that Pierre provided the initial idea for the design, which Felicita then developed and modified, but this cannot be confirmed.

For more detail see the Object History Note.

Materials

Kid leather; Watercolour; Mother-of-pearl; Silver-gilt

Techniques

Painting; Carving; Piercing; Inlay

Subjects depicted

Boats; Fountain; Trees; Cliff; Sculpture; Ship; Rowing; Dog; Stilts; Commedia dell'arte; Masks; Carriage; Carnival

Categories

Accessories; Fans; Europeana Fashion Project

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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