Clock with Pedestal

By Lourdes Figueroa

Title: Clock with Pedestal
Artist: Case attributed to André Charles Boulle (French, Paris 1642–1732 Paris); after a design by Jean Berain (French, Saint-Mihiel 1640–1711 Paris); clock either by Jacques III Thuret (1669–1738) or, more likely, by Isaac II Thuret (1630–1706), his father.
Date: ca. 1690
Medium: Case and pedestal of oak with marquetry of tortoiseshell, engraved brass, and pewter; gilt bronze; dial of gilt brass with white enameled Arabic numerals; movement of brass and steel.
Dimensions: 87 ¼ in x 13 ¾ in x 11 3/8 in (clock and crest: 24 ½ in)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credit Line: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1958
MMA Accession Number: 58.53a–c

Louis XIV’s clock with pedestal circa 1690 was one of the first modern timepieces brought to Versailles. The clock is attributed to Jacques III Thuret (1669-1738) since it is signed “J. Thuret.” But most likely it is the work of his father, Isaac II Thuret, clockmaker to the king and member of an important family of horologists.[1] The clock’s case is believed to be by the royal ébéniste André Charles Boulle (1642-1732) and is based on designs by the artist Jean Bérain (1640-1711). The clock’s case and pedestal are made of oak with marquetry of tortoiseshell, engraved brass, and pewter. The combination of tortoiseshell and brass became a characteristic feature of Boulle’s work and is often referred to as “Boulle marquetry.” Not only is the clock an innovative object created by important designers, but it is also made with exquisite materials. Tortoiseshell, in particular, was rare and exotic since it was obtained from the curved shields forming the shell of the hawksbill turtle, a native to the coasts of South Pacific, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The acquisition of tortoiseshell from these areas suggests the French monarchy’s involvement in global trading networks.

Likewise, the technique of brass on tortoiseshell used on this clock was considered extremely prestigious, significantly more so than the reverse technique of tortoiseshell on brass. In addition, the clock exhibits several royal symbols in gilt bronze that allude to the Sun King, such as a sunburst with a mask of the sun god Apollo, a crown, two lyres, and a pair of cornucopias.[2] Most likely dating back to the first century B.C. in Rome, the practice of veneering with tortoiseshell was revived in Europe during the seventeenth century, “when the shell of the tropical seagoing turtle was applied to wood surfaces of furniture.”[3] It then served as a ground for inlaid decorative patterns of other materials.

The mid seventeenth century spearheaded the great epoch in clock making with the application of the pendulum as a regulating power in the mechanism, which allowed for a more precise recording of time that included both hours and minutes.[4] Louis XIV’s clock is also fitted with a barometer in its pedestal decorated with gilded bronze and five inscriptions near the top that form the perimeter of its dial. These describe various weather conditions and range from tempest to very dry. However, this barometer was probably never used for its intended purpose and was rather added for the sake of exhibition. Evangelista Torricelli of the Florentine Academy built the first barometer in 1643, and his creation developed into an important meteorological tool. Barometers had the ability to measure atmospheric pressure, and, consequently, could forecast changes in weather. Clocks were not only seen as functional objects, but also as displays of technology. This is reinforced by the fact that they were designed as one single piece with barometers. This pairing of clocks and barometers was also commonly used in nautical design.

The arrival of the modern clock at Versailles provided a new addition to the château’s interior decorative scheme. The reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) marked an era that emphasized the social, political, and cultural significance of furnishings and interior decoration. The dual nature of clocks as a scientific object and a luxury good enabled them to serve both a decorative and functional role in the fashion of the period. The ornamentation of clocks changed according to the styles of each epoch and constituted one of the most valuable features in the adornment of a given space.[5] Clocks embellished the most elegant spaces, suggesting their privileged position in the hierarchy of decorative artifacts. Moreover, their duality as luxury and technology items turned them into suitable diplomatic gifts. In the late seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries seeking to establish missions in Japan and China introduced the first European mechanical clocks in the Far East.[6] Over time, diplomatic missions to the region included more complicated timepieces. The trade with the East, especially China, influenced the craft of clock-making in England, France, and Switzerland and stimulated the production of more complicated mechanisms and elaborate decorations with Asian motifs.

In 1370 King Charles V of France had the first public clock installed in Paris. Although these civic clocks provided numerous visual and aural cues for the benefits of all inhabitants, they served chiefly to mark the progress of a communal life and to establish a collective concept of time.[7] Later advancements in horology allowed clocks to measure the length of a day more uniformly, regardless of the seasonal duration of sunlight. And the inclusion of clocks in the domestic sphere resulted in a growing awareness of a disciplined private life.[8] The introduction of clocks in households during the reign of Louis XIV altered the perception of time itself. Previously, the marking of time was a habit of the laboring classes and the clergy, who needed a method to schedule their daily working routines. But the development of the domestic clock enabled the nobility to incorporate time keeping into their lives as well. The introduction of the pendulum and eventually of the dial that marked hours, minutes, and seconds made the management of time much more precise. Clocks made the administration of time accessible to people of different social classes and allowed them to adapt it to their working or social needs.

Louis XIV’s new timepiece in Versailles is a symbol of prestige and erudition. Like Charles V, the Sun King introduced a new method of time keeping, and his new acquisition reflected how attuned he was to technological developments. Although the development of clocks during his reign had an effect on the psychological perception of time and its use at a communal level, at its core this clock was a personal object designed specifically for Louis XIV. In a similar fashion to paintings, tapestries, furniture, and other personal objects, the clock and what it represented was an important facet of the image the king created of himself and of Versailles.

[1] Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, Object description, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010:

[2] Kisluk-Grosheide. Object description. However, Kisluk-Grosheide also mentions that despite the emblems referring to the Sun King and his reign, no royal provenance for the clock has been established.

[3] Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, “Furnising during the Reign of Louis XIV (1654-1715),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. (May 2009).

[4] W. P., “Clocks,” The Connoisseur 3 (1888), 13.

[5] W. P., “Clocks,” 17.

[6] S. A. B., “European Time Keepers in China and Japan,” in Samuel L. Macey, ed., Encyclopedia of Time (New York: Garland, 1994), 188.

[7] Charissa Bremer-David, “About Time: The Hours of the Day in Eighteenth-Century

Paris,” in Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Charissa Bremer-David (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum Publications, 2011), 14-15.

[8] Bremer-David, “About Time,” 20.


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