Eighteenth-Century French Clocks

  • ornate gold four-legged clock standing on a wall bracket with angel at top and lion's head at bottom

    Case by Charles Cressent (1685−1768)
    Movement by Jean-Baptiste Delaroche (dates unknown)
    Spring-Driven Pendulum Clock on a Bracket
    Paris, c. 1735
    Gilt bronze, enameled metal, and glass
    44 1/2 in. high x 18 1/8 in. wide (113 cm high x 46 cm wide)
    Horace Wood Brock Collection

    This four-legged clock standing on a wall bracket was designed and made by Charles Cressent, a leading French furniture-maker and sculptor. Clocks offered many creative possibilities for the artisans, as the only limitation was the dial. Free to create whatever composition he wished, Cressent designed clock cases that approached pure sculpture. In this example in chased and gilt bronze, dragons fight over a lion’s head. Combined with abstract motifs of irrational scale and asymmetric design, the piece is crowned by a winged child on clouds.

  • three vases in Chinese porcelain, embellished with gilt bronze mounts, one vase with a gilded serpent keeping time

    Clock movement by Jean Martin (active 1737−1786)
    Porcelain: Chinese, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736−95)
    Garniture of One Clock and Two Vases
    Paris, c. 1764
    Hard-paste porcelain known as celadon bleu fleuri, gilt bronze, and enameled metal
    Clock: 21 in., diameter: 8 in. (53.3 cm, diameter: 20.3 cm)
    Vases: 14 in., diameter: 9 in. each (35.6 cm, diameter: 22.9 cm)
    Horace Wood Brock Collection

    Although by the eighteenth century mechanisms had become both reliable and accurate, clocks continued to function as important status symbols indicating their owners’ wealth and refinement. This set is made with three vases in the rare Chinese porcelain known as celadon bleu fleuri. Soon after they reached France, the vases were embellished with gilt-bronze mounts and a movement by Jean Martin in an attempt to satisfy French collectors’ perpetual quest for increasingly more elaborate and novel luxury items.

    The mounts reflect the latest style, the goût grec (Greek taste), which developed in the 1760s and 1770s as a reaction to the rococo style favored by Louis XV and his court. Here the beautifully chased mounts include crowns of laurel, acanthus leaves, pilasters, lion masks, and other motifs inspired by classical Greek and Roman architecture. A gilded snake indicates the time.

  • gilt-bronze and enamel mantel regulator clock showing mean and solar time, with pendulum and depicting astrological symbols on face

    Robert Robin (1741–1799)
    case attributed to Pierre–Philippe Thomire (1751–1843)
    enameler Joseph Coteau (1740–1812)
    mainspring by Claude Monginot (working 1784–1797)
    Gilt-Bronze and Enamel Mantel Regulator Clock Showing Mean and Solar Time
    Paris, 1784
    gilt brass, steel, polychrome enamel and gold on gilt brass and bronze
    16 1/8 x 8 3/4 x 6 13/16 in. (41 x 22.3 x 17.3 cm)
    Bequest of Winthrop Kellogg Edey, 1999
    Accession number: 1999.5.151 [click to zoom into details]

    Solar time (the time determined by a sundial) and mean time (the time shown on a clock) agree only four times a year and can vary by as much as sixteen minutes. On this “equation” clock, the gilt-brass minute hand is adjusted to the time shown on a sundial, while the blue-steel minute hand automatically indicates the correct mean time. Robert Robin was one of the eighteenth century’s finest French clockmakers, receiving several royal appointments during the reign of Louis XVI. He maintained the highest standards in design and construction, engaging the best bronze-makers, gilders, and enamel dial painters. This elegant design, which he introduced around 1780, was his most famous and successful model.

  • mantle clock in gilt bronze, flanked by with figures bronze figures with books representing Study and Philosophy

    Renacle-Nicolas Sotiau (1749–1791)
    Figures after Simon-Louis Boizot (1743–1809)
    Mantel Clock Representing Study and Philosophy
    Paris, c. 1785–90
    Patinated and gilt bronze, marbre, enameled metal, and glass
    22 1/2 x  21 13/16 x 5 1/2 in. (57.2 x 53.8 x 14 cm)
    Horace Wood Brock Collection

    Although the pendulum clock was invented in 1653 by the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), its development took place in England and France. This scientific revolution transformed clocks into precise timekeepers that were both decorative and functional. Around 1669 a special type of escapement was invented that enabled pendulum clocks to keep time within a few seconds. While the British designed the case around the movement, the French gave increasing importance to the case. The French eighteenth-century clocks featured in this exhibition are all pendulum clocks, including this example with figures in bronze representing Study and Philosophy after a sculpture by Simon-Louis Boizot. The movement is by the renowned clockmaker Renacle-Nicolas Sotiau, who supplied timepieces to Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and the daughters of Louis XV, among others.

  • Spherical glass and gilt-brass clock supported by a terracotta sculpture of a pillar surrounded by three nude female figures

    Jean-Baptiste Lepaute (1727−1802)
    Claude Michel Clodion (1738−1814)
    The Dance of Time, Three Nymphs Supporting a Clock
    Paris, 1788
    Terracotta, gilt brass, and glass
    H.: 40 3/4 in in. (H.: 103.5 cm)
    Purchased by The Frick Collection through the Bequest of Winthrop Kellogg Edey, 2006
    Accession number: 2006.2.02

    With trussed hair and flowing drapery, these young dancing nymphs recall the grace and beauty of classical art, yet Clodion also renders these figures with lush realism, balancing each on one foot.  As the nymphs turn around a fluted column, their garments swirl around them. The French sculptor Clodion, one of the most inventive and technically gifted sculptors of the eighteenth century, trained in Rome, where he studied classical statuary and discovered an affinity for working in clay. 

    This clock istelf was designed by renowned Parisian clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Lepaute.  The transparent sphere makes visible the sparkling clock’s mechanisms — the pendulum, rotating dial, and small bell.  When the clock chimes on the hour, its delicate sounds give voice to the nymphs’ dance, revealing the harmonious collaboration of clockmaker and sculptor.

  • clock depicitng two carytids, (carving of a draped female figure, used as a pillar to support the entablature of a Greek building) in black bronze holding golden clock in Greek architecture

    Lenoble à Paris (dates unknown)
    Gilt-bronze mounts attributed to François Rémond (1747–1812)
    Pediment Clock
    Paris, c. 1790
    Patinated and gilt bronze, glass
    31 5/8 x 19 3/8 x 8 1/4 in (80.3 x 49.2 x 21 cm)
    Horace Wood Brock Collection

    This imposing clock exemplifies the role played by sculpture in the design of clock cases in late eighteenth-century France. Two caryatids in black bronze, draped in antique style, were modeled by an unknown sculptor who studied classical architecture. They support the upper part of a Greek temple, in the manner of the Erechtheion in Athens, built between 421 and 406 bc. Here the temple, interrupted by the clock dial, is chased and gilded by a talented craftsman, possibly François Rémond, who also executed the fabric that links the element of architecture with the caryatids’ heads, the mask of Apollo at the bottom of the pendulum, and the decoration at the base.

  • Malachite and Gilt-Bronze Mantel Clock

    Jean-François Denière (1774−1866)
    Malachite and Gilt-Bronze Mantel Clock
    Paris, c. 1810
    Malachite and gilt bronze
    17 x 10 1/16 x 6 1/2 in
    Horace Wood Brock Collection

    At their meeting at Tilsitt in June 1807, the French Emperor Napoleon received from the Russian Tsar Alexander I several magnificent gifts, including many malachite pieces that were later mounted in gilt-bronze by François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter after designs by the architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François Fontaine. Soon after, malachite mounted with gilt-bronze became fashionable among members of the First Empire’s high society. Jean-François Denière, known primarily as a bronze maker, supplied clocks and candelabra for the French palaces, most notably Versailles and the Grand Trianon. The provenance of this piece, however, remains unknown.

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