Gods, Heroes, Muses — 19th Century Timepieces

One Vancouver antique store is all about French clocks with provenance and a connection to Greek mythology and high society.

 

 Erato, Muse of Erotic Poetry, holds her lyre, singing the wisdom of the ancients.
Erato, Muse of Erotic Poetry, holds her lyre, singing the wisdom of the ancients.

 French Empire clock portrays King Louis XVI styled as Julius Caesar.
French Empire clock portrays King Louis XVI styled as Julius Caesar.

  

Customers to my gallery, Three Centuries Antique Shop in Vancouver, often ask why many of my antique French clocks feature figures drawn from Greek mythology. The high society in 19th century France, I tell them, burned to be in-the-know about Greek and Roman gods, heroes and muses. It was the equivalent of being versed in today’s arts, music, literature, blogs and social media. The lifestyles of those mythical beings, who lived some of the most dramatic lives known to humankind, were hot topics of conversation at elite gatherings. To be immortalized in a bronze or gold clock design just like a god or ancient hero was a pinnacle of recognition.

 

 Pendulum a la Geoffrin: A white marble and bronze mantle clock depicting an allegorical portrait of the French salon proprietor Madame Geoffrin.
Pendulum a la Geoffrin: A white marble and bronze mantle clock depicting an allegorical portrait of the French salon proprietor Madame Geoffrin.

 

Muses

Parisian high society adored the Nine Muses and sought out clocks that honoured them. They would have known their names and attributes by heart: Calliope, Muse of Epic Song; Clio, Muse of History; Euterpe, Muse of Lyric Song; Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy; Terpsichore, Muse of Dance; Erato, Muse of Erotic Poetry; Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Song; Urania, Muse of Astronomy; and Thalia, Muse of Comedy and Bucolic Poetry.

But the French celebrated real-life muses, too. Imagine hosting an event for the greatest thinkers of the day, a never-ending tea party so world-renowned that artists immortalized you again and again on clocks. The second timepiece here is an allegorical portrait of Madame Marie-Therese Rodet Geoffrin who ran an important Paris salon for politicians and artists and who was famously painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1738 in the pose of a student reading a book. Because of her influence in Parisian upper echelons, the mold was recast many times over three decades. Madame Geoffrin ordered one herself and presented it to the philosopher Diderot in 1768.

The original name of the timepiece was L’Emploi du Temps  but when Diderot saw the gift, he called it Pendulum Clock a la Geoffrin and the allusion remained. During the reign of Louis Philippe in the late 19th Century, the clock  became very popular again with the bourgeoisie. The specimen in the store is in fact from that later period.  

Gods and Heroes

Greek heroes like Hercules held a special place in the French imagination since they were the result of the union between gods and humans. Intrigue and grand themes followed them episode after episode. After one year as slave and lover in the service of the Lydian Queen Omphale, legend has it, the invincible Hercules was so emasculated that he handed her his lion skin and his weapon, a much-feared club. The bas relief at the bottom of the clock illustrates the culmination of the reversal, a favoured subject in antique comedies: the athletic hero holds the spindle, while Queen Omphale holds the club in her hand.

French patrons were incredibly fascinated by Greek gods. In the 19th century and even late 18th century France, rulers like Napoleon, Louis  XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette liked to identify themselves with those ancient legendaries. Kings saw themselves as gods and were portrayed as such. Athena, goddess of wisdom, conferring with the King was a popular allegorical scene on pendulum clocks. A cornucopia in the scene was a symbol of the prosperity which a King who is on such good terms with the gods can bring to his people.

 

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