Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) invented the pendulum clock in 1653, although the scientific revolution transforming clocks into precise timekeepers was not achieved until 1699. This was when a special type of escapement was invented that enabled pendulum clocks to keep time within a few seconds.
While the British designed their clock cases around what they considered was the most important aspect, the movement, the French gave increasing importance to the case the movements would be housed in.
This beautiful example of a French clock made at Paris in 1788, just prior the French revolution, is made of terracotta, gilt brass and glass. The rendering of their grace and beauty, with trussed hair and flowing drapery’ gleaned from classical art, showcases restraint in applied decoration.
With this wonderful work the neoclassical movement truly reached a superb state of classical elegance. Renowned French sculptor Claude Michel Clodion (1738-1814) produced the realistic terracotta figures of three nymphs supporting a glass sphere containing all its mechanisms; pendulum, rotating dial and small bell.
The clock itself was designed by Parisian clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Lepaute, and reveals the strength of the collaboration that existed between he and Clodion, which was typical of how trades worked at the time.
Each one had an equally important part to play in its production.
Another mantel clock representing study and philosophy was made at Paris somewhere between 1785-1790. Its movement was made by the renowned clockmaker Renacle-Nicolas Sotiau of patinated and gilt bronze, marble, enamelled metal and glass.
Ideas re-discovered already present in the philosophy of the ancients had been re-visited during the Renaissance and Reformation periods in Europe.
Sotiau supplied timepieces to Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and the daughters of Louis XV, among others and from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century the French people shifted from monarchy to empire and republic in a very short period of time on the scale of history.
The French Revolution was an age of transformation, which included a great shift in attitude and a change in societal behaviour. Considered communication between cultures was on the rise and one of the central figures of modern philosophy Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed the era was all about ‘humanity emerging into adulthood’.
The immediate reaction the revolution in the decorative arts was to pare down embellishment to express new ideals and sentiments by favouring simplicity in neoclassical interiors where embellishment was stripped away..
A ‘new’ man of taste confirmed his support for the new Directors of France by reflecting his new style in his manner of personal attire and his home.
An emphasis on subtle, quiet good taste was practiced among the wealthy and stylish bourgeoisie in Paris because they really did not want to end up in a situation where they might also lose their heads.
Pierre Duval Le Camus (1790-1854) painted a portrait of a man soberly but impeccably dressed standing against a simple boldly architectural fireplace in black marble with a clock and candlesticks in gilded bronze on the mantelpiece.
The simple needlework rug has the black ground characteristic of textile designs of the first half of the 19th century, in a room where the decoration is very plain, almost to the point of austerity.
The period of the Directoire we could say has parallels to the late 1980’s when the greed is good mentality finally crashed and burned and marble and travertine floors gave way to timber parquetry. While the visual look was toned down well-made parquetry floors in reality cost nearly the same.
In 1798 General Napoleon Bonaparte went to Egypt where he spent fourteen months enjoying victories, suffering defeats and deprivations, while loving the way of life.
He took with him hundreds of artists; poets, talented scientists, scholars and linguists and together they all changed the course of history.
They flooded the market with drawings and paintings of their journey recording the discovery of a wealth of symbols and imagery that would begin appearing on all forms of decorative art. Sphinxes became a favourite in the house and garden.
This sensational clock in The Met at New York is signed on dial: Lepaute [for the workshop of the period consisting of Jean-Baptiste Lepaute (1727–1802) and Pierre Henry, called Henry-Lepaute (1749–1806)] from the famous family of clockmakers.
Following the French Revolution a great number of laws and institutions associated with the monarchy were also withdrawn.
One was the official hallmarking of objects of precious metal; the Assemblée Legislative cancelled the law on October 1st, 1791.
After this enamellers were allowed to sell complete clocks without being required to include the name of the clockmaker.
Also without official controls lower quality silver and gold began appearing on the market, so that master goldsmiths of the recognised guild introduced their own mark.
The collapse of the monarchy, the French Revolution (1789), the accession of General Napoleon Bonaparte as Consul (1799), and as Emperor Napoleon 1 (1804) would bring if not peace to France, at least some measure of order.
Napoleon patronized and encouraged artists and artisans. When he became Consul of France he went to great lengths to encourage them, considering luxe a necessary adjunct to France’s economy.
As Emperor Napoleon 1 the decorative arts were greatly enhanced and they embellished the stage on which he operated politically, while in reality he lived most of his life in a tent on campaign.
In June 1807 Napoleon received from the Russian Tsar Alexander I several magnificent gifts. Some of these were pieces of malachite.
This mantel clock made of some of those pieces has gilt-bronze mounts by François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter after designs by Napoleon’s 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. Not since Louis XIV’s reign at Versailles had Europe been as captivated as it was as French leadership in style was renewed under Napoleon.
Under the Empire, bronzier and sculptor Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843) purchased the fashionable premises of the marchand mercier Martin-Éloi Lignereux and when he exhibited for the first time in the 1806 Exposition Publique des Produits de l’Industrie, he gained a gold medal.
Napoleon favoured grand pieces in the style named for his rule as Emperor.
Although the classical doctrine flowed from Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century as the Empire grew, French architects went abroad and foreign architects began working in their version of the Empire Style
Napoleon’s set the standard for men in the new society. He was not a socialite and indeed spent little time at balls, presentations and festivities. He preferred to read books or see the famous actor Talma at the Comedie Fancoise, was courteous but spent little time with guests.
He had a grand vision for France evidenced by his promotion of talented craftsmen. Egyptian as well as classical influences prevailed predominantly because the elaborate ornamentation that began to become the norm, symbolized the power he was so proud of achieving.
The Empire Style was decidedly masculine and this was reflected in wreaths and figures personifying fame and victory, Triumphal symbols abounded.
However Napoleon also had his softer side. His love letters to his first wife Josephine reveal the romantic side of his nature and the Imperial bestiary, while made up of eagles and bees symbols of power and industriousness, also included graceful swan and other allegories of love softening the heroic severity.
The Chariot of Love led by Fidelity clock attributed to Andre-Antoine Ravrio, which is in the collection of the Fondation Napoleon, Paris is a wondrous achievement.
To Be Continued…
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013