“F” for fans made of feathered-flowers, birds and insects. Exoticism and frivolity in the consumption of fashionable objects traded between the New World and the Old World. Maria Cristina Volpi, Associate Professor School of Fine Arts, University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

The Atlantic trade of objects and people between Brazil and Europe as of the 16th century has contributed to the diversification and abundance of birds and bird feathers onto the European market, for the valuation of exotic animals, as well as for the introduction into Europe of new aesthetic ideas and color schemes inspired by American nature and feathers.

Procession at the court of Stuttgart, carnival, “Queen America’s” parade, Anonymous (1599), watercolor, 29,8 cm x 41 cm. Weimar, Klassik Stiftung Bestand Museen Inventory n°KK 205. Photo: Hannes Bertram, 2016.


Guided by the ideology of the Enlightenment, the Portuguese made until the end of the 18th century regular deliveries of items of the flora, fauna and material culture of the native populations from their colonies, to stimulate the study and dissemination of Natural History in Europe. Among the pieces sent from Brazil to the Ajuda Royal Natural History Museum in Lisbon were live parrots and other birds that were stuffed, as well as their feathers for making artificial flowers, embroidery, hats and hand-held fans adorned with feathers and leaves.

Florilège de Nassau-Idstein, 1664, pl. 33, Johann Walter (1604-1677). Paris, BNF, Est Réserve JA-25-Boîte Fol.

At the end of the 18th century, Europe was already saturated with parrots, macaws and parakeets and thirsty for novelties, what led the Portuguese court to recommend that the viceroy of Brazil should do his best to send live hummingbirds, a family of birds that includes more than one hundred and eight genera native to the Americas and whose main habitat is Brazil. However, the hummingbirds could not possibly survive a sea voyage and, so they had to be shipped stuffed.

Picaflor (Hummingbird), Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira, 1783-1792, watercolor, 31,5 cm x 21 cm. Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca Nacional Brasil, Manuscript, Inventory n° 21A,1,004 nº 006 – Manuscritos. Digital Object: mss1255460_06.http://acervo.bndigital.bn.br/sophia/index.asp?codigo_sophia=808.

Hummingbirds were widely used to ornate feathered hand-held fans in compositions with insects and feathered flowers.This handicrafts work had existed in Brazil since the mid-18th century and had become internationally known through the agency of travelers and naturalists interested in Natural History products. The precursors of the art of feathered flowers were the nuns Josefa Maria and Maria da Trindade, Ursuline sisters within the convent Our Lady of the Soledade, founded in 1739 in Salvador, Bahia. They had adapted techniques used to make cloth flowers.

Hand-held fan, circa 1872-1877, Brazilian work, Domingos L. da Cunha (manufacturer), stuffed hummingbird, feathers, ivory, beetles 35 x 23 cm. Collection Maria Cristina Volpi.

In Rio de Janeiro, this use of feathers was linked to fashions coming from Paris in the ads published in magazines, while in France it was initially attributed to the South American natives. Later, the combination of feathered flowers with colorful hummingbirds and iridescent insects became known in Europe as Brazilian style, perceived as a fusion of tropical nature with French taste.

The exhibition of these works in the universal fairs in Europe as of 1873, when these items in Rio de Janeiro, whose apogee occurred between 1870 and 1890. Interest in exotic ornaments intensified with a growing demand from European and American bourgeoisie women eager to consume fashion products previously restricted to the dominant strata.

Flower spray, 19th Century, Brazilian work, wire, silk, feathers, 25 cm x 10 cm. Collection Maria Cristina Volpi.

In an ensemble that indistinctly combined naturalia and artificialia, European and Amerindian techniques merged to produce objects whose aesthetics defied the boundaries between ‘real’ nature and fantasy. As a result, feathers, birds and insects were perceived by a broadened consumer market for their effects of movement, color, brightness and iridescence. The consumption of these ornaments revealed the ambivalent relationship of the European and North American bourgeoisie to extra-western cultures considered inferior, thus embodying the sense of exoticism of that romantic and imperialist age.


VOLPI, Maria Cristina (2015)Objetos raros e curiosos: colecionismo etnográfico e a moda burguesa do uso de penas, pássaros e insetos nos oitocentos.” Atas do II Colóquio Internacional Coleções de Arte em Portugal e Brasil nos séculos XIX e XX: Histórias e Conexões. [to be published on https://colecoesdearte.wordpress.com/

VOLPI, Maria Cristina (2016) “The Exotic West: The Circuit of Carioca Featherwork in the Nineteenth Century.” Fashion Theory, 20 (2), 127-152.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1362704X.2016.1133542.

Cite this blog post
Corinne Thepaut-Cabasset (2017, November 21). “F” for fans made of feathered-flowers, birds and insects. Exoticism and frivolity in the consumption of fashionable objects traded between the New World and the Old World. Maria Cristina Volpi, Associate Professor School of Fine Arts, University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). DRESSING THE NEW WORLD. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nwqt

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