This spectacular cartel clock, with its gravity-defying figures of Cupid and Chronos floating among clouds and rocaille, is a masterpiece of the pittoresque style of the 1730s. The reclining figure of Chronos with Cupid hovering above the clock face is clearly inspired by two designs by the celebrated rococo ornemaniste Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, both illustrated in his oeuvres engraved by Gabriel Huquier and published circa 1750 (illustrated here). One features in a cross-section of a house designed for Léon de Bréthous in the mid-1730s, while the other features a 'cadran à vent' (wind indicator) designed for the duc de Mortemar in 1724. A further design for 'une grande Pendule placée sur un paneau' features a clock surmounted by a winged female emblematic of Love with a figure below reclining in clouds and rocaille in a very similar pose to Chronos on the clock offered here (se D. Nyberg, Meissonnier , New York, 1969, figs. 5, 55 and 56).
Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier was one of the greatest proponents of the genre pittoresque, now known as the Rococo. The Italian-born son of a silversmith and sculptor, he moved to Paris in 1718 and went on to succeed Jean Bérain II as dessinateur de la Chambre et du Cabinet du Roi, and in 1724 received his warrant as master goldsmith from Louis XV. His broader role at the court was reflected in the fact that in 1726 he was also appointed as designer for the king's bedchamber and cabinet. His engraved designs were among the most influential of the period, remarkable for their organic and fluid forms and encompassing boiseries, bronzes d'ameublement, architectural schemes and spectacularly imaginative ideas for argenterie.
The only other known example of this remarkable model of cartel clock is in the J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, formerly in the collection of the French Rothschild's at the château de Ferrières, (illustrated and discussed in G. Wilson, D. Cohen et al., European Clocks in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996, cat. VIII, pp. 58-64). Interestingly the Getty clock also has an associated movement, by Jean-Jacques Fiéffé. The Getty catalogue points out a group of clocks by Charles Cressent, including one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, described in his inventory of 1749, which share the same general composition of a Cupid floating above Chronos reclining below the dial. However there is a lightness and freedom of execution to this and the Getty's example which is of a different spirit to Cressent's tightly controlled design, pointing to another as yet unknown bronzier being responsible for these remarkable works.
When sold at Christie's in 1886, it was stated that this cartel clock had previously been in the Hôtel de Ville, the celebrated city hall of Paris designed in 1533 by Dominique de Cortone and Pierre Chambiges for François I and eventually destroyed by fire in the Commune of 1871. Although without any further documentary evidence this provenance cannot be substantiated, as the sale took place only 15 years after 1871, there seems no reason to doubt it, as the clock may have been circulating on the market following the destruction of the Hôtel de Ville. Eventually, the Hôtel de Ville was aggrandized in 1835 with two additional wings- as the dial of the clock offered here was added in the 19th century, could this embellishment have taken place as part of the 1835 refurbishment of the Hôtel? Interestingly, a similar cartel clock of comparable dimensions by Cressant can be found in the Hôtel de ville de Marseille.
The collection from which this clock was sold at Christie's in 1886 was probably that of Christian Johannes Nieuwenhuys, the eminent Brussels picture dealer who had previously owned Johannes Vermeer's The Geographer, now in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, and who in 1837 had published a catalogue of the Prince of Orange's picture collection in Brussels.
The 20th century provenance of this clock is equally glamorous, as it belonged to the celebrated operatic mezzo-soprano and renowned beauty Blanche Thebom (1915-2010), who performed for 22 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and was particularly known for her performances in the operas of Richard Wagner. She retired from the stage in 1967, but continued to stay connected to the world of opera as a voice teacher and as a longstanding member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera.