Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
French Empire mantel clock

French Empire mantel clock

Ask a question about 'French Empire mantel clock'
Start a new discussion about 'French Empire mantel clock'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum

A French Empire-style mantel clock, is a type of elaborately decorated mantel clock
Mantel clock
Mantel clocks — or shelf clocks — are relatively small house clocks traditionally placed on the shelf, or mantel, above the fireplace. The form, first developed in France in the 1750s, can be distinguished from earlier chamber clocks of similar size due to a lack of carrying handles.These clocks...

 made in France over the Napoleonic Empire between 1804–1814/15, although the clocks manufactured throughout the Bourbon Restoration
Bourbon Restoration
The Bourbon Restoration is the name given to the period following the successive events of the French Revolution , the end of the First Republic , and then the forcible end of the First French Empire under Napoleon  – when a coalition of European powers restored by arms the monarchy to the...

 (1814/1815–1830) are also included within this art movement
Art movement
An art movement is a tendency or style in art with a specific common philosophy or goal, followed by a group of artists during a restricted period of time, or, at least, with the heyday of the movement defined within a number of years...

 because they share subject, decorative elements, shapes and style.


Already by the end of the 18th century, from the 1780s on, the French mantel clocks participated of a new art movement; the Neoclassicism
Neoclassicism is the name given to Western movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that draw inspiration from the "classical" art and culture of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome...

. The predominant style in architecture, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts, that had come into its own during the last years of Louis XV’s life, chiefly as a reaction to the excesses of the Rococo but partly through the popularity of the excavations at ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii, in Italy.

Therefore the clocks also did without the excessive ornamentation and overelaborate designs of the preceding Rococo
Rococo , also referred to as "Late Baroque", is an 18th-century style which developed as Baroque artists gave up their symmetry and became increasingly ornate, florid, and playful...

 style so typical of the Louis XV reign.

The timekeepers manufactured both over the Louis XVI and the French First Republic
French First Republic
The French First Republic was founded on 22 September 1792, by the newly established National Convention. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First French Empire in 1804 under Napoleon I...

 period incorporated this new artistic language with classical designs, allegories and motifs. In the case of the Louis XVI pieces, stone (usually white marble, alabaster or biscuit) was combined with gilded and/or patinated bronze, although certain cases were completely cast in bronze. Some models were architectural (i.e., with no figures) while others displayed classical-style figurines.

Subsequently during the Directoire and Consulat times bronze turned progressively into the predominant material employed and so remained throughout the Empire.

Materials and techniques

In the Empire style timepieces, bronze
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, so much so that the Bronze Age was named after the metal...

 was the main material used and both the patinated bronze and particularly ormolu
Ormolu is an 18th-century English term for applying finely ground, high-karat gold in a mercury amalgam to an object of bronze. The mercury is driven off in a kiln...

 techniques were extensively used, reaching its zenith during this age. Indeed, the fine modeling, gilt and patina finishes used in these series-produced pendulum clocks are matchless. Most cases were totally cast in bronze and others combined with a stone base made of marble
Marble is a metamorphic rock composed of recrystallized carbonate minerals, most commonly calcite or dolomite.Geologists use the term "marble" to refer to metamorphosed limestone; however stonemasons use the term more broadly to encompass unmetamorphosed limestone.Marble is commonly used for...

, alabaster
Alabaster is a name applied to varieties of two distinct minerals, when used as a material: gypsum and calcite . The former is the alabaster of the present day; generally, the latter is the alabaster of the ancients...

 or porphyry
Porphyry (geology)
Porphyry is a variety of igneous rock consisting of large-grained crystals, such as feldspar or quartz, dispersed in a fine-grained feldspathic matrix or groundmass. The larger crystals are called phenocrysts...

. However, wood (mahogany or fruit wood) and carved crystal
A crystal or crystalline solid is a solid material whose constituent atoms, molecules, or ions are arranged in an orderly repeating pattern extending in all three spatial dimensions. The scientific study of crystals and crystal formation is known as crystallography...

 (the latter used during the Restoration) were (less frequently) employed.

During this period there were between 40 and 60 workshops with founders, gilders, silverers, and chasers in Paris. The founders usually made a wax model from a draft and from this wax model a negative plaster cast was made, which could be reproduced more often. Then using this plaster cast a mould was made, in which the bronze was casted. By combining figures and mountings several versions of one design were produced.

Most gilders did not survive beyond 40 years of age, due to exposure to the harmful mercury
Mercury (element)
Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80. It is also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum...

 fumes caused during the fire-gilding process. So no true ormolu was produced in France after around 1830 as legislation had outlawed the use of mercury (although was still in use around 1960 in very few workshops). Other techniques were used instead, but nothing surpasses the original mercury-firing ormolu method for sheer beauty and richness of colour.

Regarding the mechanism, towards the end of the 18th century, round clock movements became a reliable mass-produced product. Known as “Pendule de Paris“ (Paris, or French, clock movements), they were an 8-day movement with anchor escapement, silk thread suspended pendulum with a count wheel striking on a bell every hour and half hour. By the 1840's the simple and very effective silk suspension was being replaced by various adjustable spring suspension systems.

It is necessary to emphasize that unlike the clocks manufactured in the 18th century where the majority of them were signed, the authorship in many of the Empire ones remain anonymous making it difficult to attribute one particular piece to a certain bronzier. When signed they usually bear the name on the dial and could be the bronzier's name as well as the retailer's name or the movement maker.

Style and design

The clocks were manufactured following the style then in vogue, the Empire style, a phase of Neoclassicism, based on the classical antiquity art; both the ancient Greece and specially the Roman Empire.

Although there were a great diversity of cases, the most common and popular ones were the clocks with a rectangular or oblong base sustained by four (or more) legs of different forms and designs. The pedestal
Pedestal is a term generally applied to the support of a statue or a vase....

 front was normally decorated with either garlands, acanthus tendrils, acroterions, laurel wreaths, scrolls, flowers and other classical decorative motifs, or depicting finely chased mythological and allegoric scenes in relief as a frieze
thumb|267px|Frieze of the [[Tower of the Winds]], AthensIn architecture the frieze is the wide central section part of an entablature and may be plain in the Ionic or Doric order, or decorated with bas-reliefs. Even when neither columns nor pilasters are expressed, on an astylar wall it lies upon...

 of a Greek-Roman temple. On top of the base (in the center or to one side) sat the plinth that accommodated the clock dial, however in other models it was also placed in cart wheels, rocks, shields, globes, tree trunks, etc.

These timekeepers were embellished with fine bronze figures of art, sciences, and high ideals allegories, gods, goddesses, muses, cupids, classical literary heroes and other allegorical or mythological compositions. Sometimes historical personages such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

, George Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

, Napoleon Bonaparte, philosophers and classical authors, were the main theme as well. Hence they are also known as figural or sculptural clocks (rather than architectural).

Likewise, another of the scupltor's source of inspiration for the composition of a certain design were both classical sculptures
Classical sculpture
Classical sculpture refers to the forms of sculpture from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, as well as the Hellenized and Romanized civilizations under their rule or influence from about 500 BC to fall of Rome in AD 476. It also refers stylistically to modern sculptures done in a classical style....

 and celebrated paintings. Examples of the first one include the sleeping ariadne
Sleeping Ariadne
The Sleeping Ariadne of the Vatican Museums, Rome, a Roman Hadrianic copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of the Pergamene school of the 2nd century BCE, is one of the most renowned sculptures of Antiquity...

 or Psyche revived by cupid's kiss
Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss
Antonio Canova's statue Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, first commissioned in 1787, exemplifies the Neoclassical devotion to love and emotion. It represents the god Cupid in the height of love and tenderness, immediately after awakening the lifeless Psyche with a kiss, a scene excerpted from Lucius...

 by Antonio Canova
Antonio Canova
Antonio Canova was an Italian sculptor from the Republic of Venice who became famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered nude flesh...

 and in painting can be quoted the Oath of the Horatii
Oath of the Horatii
Oath of the Horatii , is a work by French artist Jacques-Louis David painted in 1784. It depicts a scene from a Roman legend about a dispute between two warring cities; Rome and Alba Longa, when three brothers from a Roman family, the Horatii, agree to end the war by fighting three brothers from an...

 by Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David was an influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era...

 or the Triumph of Galatea
Galatea (Raphael)
The Triumph of Galatea is a fresco masterpiece completed in 1512 by the Italian painter Raphael for the Villa Farnesina in Rome.The Farnesina was built for the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, one of the richest men of that age. The Farnese family later acquired and renamed the villa, smaller than...

 by Rafael.

The classical gods served as models and symbols for the era. For instance, the chariot clocks or “pendules au char” were an exceptional category within the Empire clocks. Apollo, Diana and Cupid depicted as triumphant chariot drivers, were the most popular gods used. It was habitual during the Napoleonic times and particularly under the “Directoire” and “Consulat” regimes that clocks glorify the conduct of warfare.

More domestic and romantic subjects, like the "temple of love", gained popularity after the downfall of the Napoleon's Empire. During the Restoration (1815–1830) the representation of warfare scenes was not as common as in the early Empire.

Finally, under the reign of Charles X (1824–1830), the case designs started gradually to develop away from a proportionate and strict classicism
Classicism, in the arts, refers generally to a high regard for classical antiquity, as setting standards for taste which the classicists seek to emulate. The art of classicism typically seeks to be formal and restrained: of the Discobolus Sir Kenneth Clark observed, "if we object to his restraint...

 towards a baroque style which announced the eclecticism
Eclecticism is a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases.It can sometimes seem inelegant or...

 and historicisms
Historicism (art)
Historicism refers to artistic styles that draw their inspiration from copying historic styles or artisans. After neo-classicism, which could itself be considered a historicist movement, the 19th century saw a new historicist phase marked by a return to a more ancient classicism, in particular in...

 in forms, so typical, on the other side, of the rest of the 19th century. That’s why during the second half of that century and early 20th, among all of the different styles of mantel clocks available; Rococo, Louis XVI, etc., exemplaries in the Empire style were revived as well, normally they were replicas based on preexisting models.

Empire clocks in general and the largest and most notable examples in particular from the top bronziers, such as Pierre-Philippe Thomire
Pierre-Philippe Thomire
Pierre-Philippe Thomire a French sculptor, was the most prominent bronzier, or producer of ornamental patinated and gilt-bronze objects and furniture mounts of the First French Empire...

, André-Antoine Ravrio
André-Antoine Ravrio
André-Antoine Ravrio was a French sculptor in bronze. He was made a master founder in 1777 and set up in business on his own in 1790...

, Louis-Stanislas Lenoir-Ravrio, Jean-André Reiche or Claude Galle, are considered more than just clocks. They are works of art as well, sculptural études, where the balance in composition and the study of objects, animals and the human bodies forms and expressions are carefully and meticulously reflected in the bronze figures, achieving a high degree of realism, perfectionism and delicacy.

These timepieces were devised to decorate the console tables or mantelpieces of palaces, European and American mansions, houses, offices, etc. Today many of them are part of royal collections and can be seen in palaces, official residences, embassies, ministries, museums all over the world, etc.

Even nowadays a few manufacturers replicate these kind of clocks, proving that the attention to detail, taste, elegance and refinement achieved by the different artists and craftsmen involved in its making process, are everlasting and timeless alike.

External links