“For the very highest ranks of society, however, costly and luxurious clocks and watches alluded to a leisured stature…wherein time was not constrained by bourgeois conventions…” (Getty, 54)
The celebrated clockmaker, Jacques Gudin le Jeune defined the profession of horlogerie as an embodiment of the Enlightenment, in its affinity, “at one and the same time to the sciences by the knowledge it demands, and to the arts by the knowledge it employs.”Advancements in clockwork during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries spurred a widespread penchant for personal timepieces. Within the domestic sphere, clocks came to represent a well-regulated and orderly household, and as the private home adopted a distinct identity, they symbolized a disciplined personal life.
Following its creation in the 1690s, the mantelpiece was used to display the most prized ornaments of a home; the freestanding, diminutive mantelpiece clock, or pendule de cheminée, thus developed in the 1750s as a showcase of the material richness of an interior, and as a visual anchor through its symmetrical positioning along the major axes of a room. Through the appreciation of time’s transience, a moralizing theme came to represent the characteristic ornamentation of clock cases: a bronze-gilt sculpture of Father Time mounted at the base, with outstretched arms gesturing toward the dial as a constant reminder of the passage of time. However, a moulding of Cupid would often be superimposed on the cornice of the clock, having stolen the scythe of Time, metaphorically depicting the adage “Love conquers Time”, or Amor vincit Tempus (Figures 1 and 2).
The creation of a mantelpiece clock entailed a collaborative effort, and the labour of its assembly could be divided among as many as thirteen individual artisans, mechanics and subcontractors. Horlogers en moyenne volume, recognized as the innovators of pendulum clocks, belonged to three distinct and rivaling areas of expertise: erudite mechanics within the Académie Royales des Sciences and the Observatoire de Paris, members of the Parisian guild of master clockmakers, and independent amateurs who used private collections of scientific instruments. The inner mechanism of the pendule was comprised of bronze and gold so as to ensure the device’s longevity. The elegant case of the mantelpiece clock would be carved by an ebeniste, or a cabinetmaker (Figure 6). He collaborated with an ivoirier to scallop wood or ivory at the base of the clock, or would request a marbrerie to supply marble paneling. The case was inlaid with semi-precious stones or etched with bronze, shell and horn by a goldsmith, or orfèvre. A doreur des métaux was responsible for the most distinct decoration: the gilded bronze sculptural groups at the top and base of the clock (Figure 3). Despite the varied sectors of labour that contributed to this production, it was usually the name of the craftsman of the internal mechanism which was painted on the enameled dial of the clock face, or was engraved into the movement.
Well in accord with the ever changing trends of interior décor, cases of clocks were individually crafted to accent the furnishings of specific homes. The exterior comprised materials sourced from throughout the French colonies, elaborately veneered with exotic stained woods, mother-of-pearl, animal horn, tortoiseshell, ivory, gemstones and precious metals. As the fantasy of the Orient materialized in France, lacquered Asian wood was used as a finish, in a whimsical contrast to the Classical themes pictorially manifested on the timepiece (Figures 1 and 4).
Within the tableau of La Grande Toilette the mantelpiece clock is portrayed as a visually significant element of the room, in a centralized zone of social activity (Figure 5). Positioned before the large mirror and in between the gleaming candlesticks, the clock’s extensive gilding is magnified, effectively highlighting the tasteful shades and contours of the furnishings. The print combines the elements of a more private space, through the structure of the interior, and those of a public space, through the court dress of the primary subject. In the print La Surprise, the cabinet clock confirms the private nature of the tableau, making explicit the domestic setting. As a part of Moreau Le Jeune’s narrative, the mantlepiece clock, bearing its typical symbolic sculptures, signifies the devotion of the prominent member of society to the productive use of time in both spheres of life.
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Figure 1. Table Clock with Sculptural Decoration. 1805. Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris. ARTstor. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.
Figure 2. Gouthier. Pendule lyre de Gouthier. 1769. Château de Versailles. Gallica: Bibliothéque Nationale de France. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.
Figure 3. Cressent, Charles. Louis XV Wall Clock with Bracket. 1730. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. ARTstor. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Figure 4. Chantilly and Benjamin Gray. Clock (Pendule). 1745. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ARTstor. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Figure 5. Moreau (Le Jeune), Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.
Figure 6. Dumesnil, Pierre. Interior with Card Players. 1752. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. The Getty Iris. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.