[Écran à main] / [L’Enfance de Socrate]. Print Culture, Women, 18th-Century France.
Neoclassical Écran à Main Decorated with Scene from the Childhood of Socrates
[Paris], [c. 1790-1800].

[Écran à main] / [L’Enfance de Socrate].

Printed écran à main, original handle in turned wood. Printed surface measures 23.0 x 21.8 cm, wood handle measures 19.7 cm. Mixed engraving techniques, some printed in color, on brown and green paper over pasteboard, gold-tooled borders on one side, with original turned wood handle. Minor rubbing and edge wear, part of the trim on verso missing, not affecting the image; the handle split and repaired.

A fine late-18th-century printed écran à main, or hand-held fire screen, charmingly decorated with a Neoclassical color stipple engraving of “The Childhood of Socrates,” a sepia stipple engraving of a putto, and elaborate engraved borders on color paper printed expressly to conform to the idiosyncratic polygonal shape of this item. Écrans à main were used – typically by women – to shield one’s face from an open fireplace when the intense heat of the flames threatened to redden exposed skin or melt carefully applied cosmetics. Usually made of stiff pasteboard attached to a turned wood handle, the écran à main became during the ancien régime a site for a vast range of popular iconography, often incorporating printed material both made expressly for these objects and recycled from other print sources. Like decorated folding fans (éventails), to which they are related, écrans à main are fascinating for providing a glimpse into an almost exclusively female form of material culture, but unlike fans, écrans à main were not intended to be seen in public, instead being used only in the private domestic spaces of the boudoir or small appartement. When they became worn, as they easily did, they were thrown into the fire, making their survival in good condition today rather rare.

Typical 18th-century écrans à main were based on polylobed rococo shapes and were loosely hand painted and pasted over with popular engravings, resulting in an effect which varied between charmingly naïve and sloppy. The present écran dates from after the French Revolution and is of an entirely different aesthetic register, having been carefully produced according to the most current Neoclassical principles and designed as a clean polygonal shape using sophisticated mixed print techniques carefully produced to harmonized with the regular outlines of the écran. The color stipple engraving of the child Socrates meeting Athena at once conforms to the expected iconographical choices of the Neoclassical Era and appeals to what certainly was a predominantly female clientele for the piece.

Écrans à main were produced in great numbers during the 17th and 18th centuries, but these ephemeral items, which made excellent kindling when they became worn, are today rather rare in good condition. After the French Revolution, écrans à main, which were long favored by bourgeois and aristocratic women, slowly fell out of fashion. The present item is thus a rare example of a finely produced écran produced after the Revolution according to rigorous Neoclassical principles.

* N. Rizzoni, “L’actualité dramatique à l’écran au XVIIIe siècle,” in Les éphémères et l’événement, O. Belin and F. Ferran, eds., pp. 161-80; D. Crépin, “Une promenade au Palais-Royal à la fin du règne de Louis XVI,” Versalia: Revue de la Société des Amis de Versailles, no. 11 (2008), pp. 41-53.

Price: $1,250.00

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