A remarkably lovely 18th-century hand fan bearing many illustrations and a curious map of Texas, all celebrating the final, fateful expedition of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643 – 1687).
A stylized chronology of La Salle’s final expedition
The front of the fan features a dramatic scene that can be divided into three chronologically ordered segments. The leftmost scene appears to depict the 1684 departure of La Salle’s colonizing expedition from La Rochelle, with European settlers boarding ships ready to sail. In the foreground recumbent figures watch the proceedings. The middle segment details the arrival of the expedition in the New World. Passengers have disembarked and are shown trading with indigenous American peoples, the latter represented in a highly styled manner. The large bales being loaded and unloaded suggest furs.
The third segment, at the far right, is of the greatest interest to us, as it features a small, all-but unknown map of “Nouv Mexico”, depicting the region of modern-day Texas where La Salle established his short-lived colony. The map covers the modern-day Texas Gulf Coast in the vicinity of Matagorda Bay, where La Salle established his Fort St. Louis colony in 1685. The coverage extends inland to include lands of the “Cenis” (Hasinai Confederacy), in which the Franciscan mission of “Teijas” is situated (Tejas is the Hasinai word for “friend” and is commonly accepted as the origin of the toponym “Texas”.) The mission was established in 1690 by the Spanish nobleman Alonso de León ‘El Mozo’ (ca. 1639 – 1691) and Franciscan priest Damián Massanet in a direct counter to La Salle’s colonizing efforts. By that time, La Salle himself was dead, Fort St. Louis had been destroyed by a Karankawa attack in 1689, and further demolished a few months later by León.
Cartographically, this small map is loosely derived from Guillaume de L’Isle’s 1718 map, Carte de la Louisiane, widely considered the first map to name Texas (“Teijas”). The two maps clearly have overlapping nomenclature, with all of the toponyms on the fan also present on the de L’Isle map, including the “Colorado R.”, “Cenis”, “Teijas”, “Sabonniere R.”, “Trinidad R.”, “Bidaye” (Bidai, a tribe of Atakapa Indians first recorded in 1691), and the “B. St. Barnard ou St. Louis”. However the underlying geography, particularly the treatment of the river networks, is here very different. These differences could perhaps be attributed to the engraver drawing on an unknown intermediate source, though more likely he or she simply took liberties in producing a decorative object.
The verso of the fan features an idyllic image of colonization. Numerous sailing vessels ply what appear to be the calm waters of a highly-stylized Matagorda. In the background a small, fortified settlement rests along the waterfront, with cultivated fields nestled into a protected valley just beyond. A second fort holds a commanding position on a high bluff overlooking the bay.
Most likely of French construction, the fan is mounted on 24 ivory sticks with mother-of-pearl end-pieces on either side. The sticks are finely carved with figural representational of cherubic children frolicking among elaborately painted vines, many playing musical instruments. The mother-of-pearl endpieces feature vines, acanthus leaves, and various animals, including birds, sheep, and what might be a rabbit. These side panels also bear the centrally situated symbol of a face surrounded by solar rays, the icon of La Salle’s sponsor Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France from 1643 until his death in 1715.
The fan is in short spectacular, a view echoed by Dorothy Sloan, who handled the only other example of which we are aware.
“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.” (Dorothy Sloan Auction 23 (April 4-5, 2013), lot 540)
The La Salle Colony
French nobleman René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle explored the lower reaches of the Mississippi from the north, reaching the Delta in 1682, claiming the entire Mississippi Basin for France, and naming it “Louisiana” after Louis XIV. Recognizing the potential of the Mississippi to link French colonies in Canada with the Gulf of Mexico, La Salle returned to Europe and sought Louis’ sponsorship for a settlement at the mouth of the river.
Permission granted, La Salle returned to the Gulf Coast. Unable to discover the mouth of the Mississippi due to difficulties in measuring longitude as well as the inherently confusing nature of the coastline, La Salle instead established Fort St. Louis, in Matagorda Bay, some 500 miles to the west. The fledgling colony was plagued by mismanagement, disease, and hostile indigenous peoples. It also antagonized the Spanish, who had long laid claim to the region. In response, they sent no less than three naval expeditions to map the Gulf Coast and in 1690 established the Teijas mission.
As for La Salle, he continued to search for the Mississippi, pushing his men and resources to the limit. In 1687, on one such exploration eastward, near the Brazos River he was murdered by one of his men. Fort St. Louis itself was repeatedly raided by native peoples and ultimately destroyed by a Karankawa raid in 1689. What remained was further demolished by the Spanish two months later. Though La Salle’s claim to Louisiana was little more than a vain boast and his colonizing venture a catastrophic failure, he showed the way to an empire built by other men. Nearly thirty years later, France later made a second attempt to follow up on La Salle’s claims in Louisiana, successfully founding New Orleans in 1718.
Speculation on production history
The present fan represents one of two known surviving examples. The other example was discovered in Spain in 2010-11, and subsequently sold at auction in 2013 by the late Dorothy Sloan, where it fetched some $37,000 with buyer’s premium. That example was tentatively identified as “English” by Sloan and consultants from the Greenwich Fan Museum, but this seems to us implausible, as the iconography present on this map, particularly the emblem of Louis XIV, would not have appealed to an English audience. Likely, as most such fans of the period, the fan itself was printed in Europe, then mounted to sticks carved in Asia and imported by the French, British, or Dutch East India Companies.
Sloan also submitted her example of the fan to forensic color analysis, which she used to date the fan. This analysis presumably applies equally to the present fan
“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” (Sloan, op cit)
Hand fans are by nature extremely fragile, and this example is a remarkable survival in relatively excellent condition, fully functioning, with the colors still bright and minimal wear to the engraved image or other elements.