Appreciation for Monkeys goes back to Biblical times where they were admired for their entertaining qualities. King Salomon enjoyed them and, as the First Book of Kings reported (10:22), “Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come [to Israel] bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.” In Western art, a monkey became a symbol of playfulness with elements of silliness as exhibited, for instance, by Jean Baptiste Chardin at the Salon du Louvre in 1740 in a form of a painting of a monkey painting a painting.
It appears that the first Monkey automata were created during the Renaissance. In Louis XV inventory there is a description of a clock “on a tortoiseshell base, possibly Renaissance, with an automat monkey and a 24-hour movement” (Archives nationales O1 3622, as reported by Jean-Dominique Augarde). In 1785 Marie Antoinette was presented with a Monkey Trio Automaton, one monkey playing on a violin, two on violencellos.
Eighty years later, in 1862, Alexandre Nicholas Théroude of Paris went further designing a monkey ”nodding his head to the bow movement, moving his jaws, and drawing a bow across the violin” (French patent No. 55,760). In the 1855 Paris Exhibition Théodore’s marvels became the star attractions, including a monkey playing a violin. The 1871 London Exhibition report was even more flattering; "The king of toys was, as always, our compatriot M. A. Théroude. … This was the most well-known place in the whole Exhibition, and the curious people carefully collected the announcement of the hours when the birds would sing, the monkey played the violin, and so on.”
During that time, in the 1870s, Théodore’s younger colleague, Jean Marie Phalibois, another ingenious Parisian automata maker, whose automaton ”The Conversation on the Rooftop” was a sensation at the Paris Exposition of 1878, made a monkey to Théroude’s design with modified details employing easier to handle threads instead of wires. The details of our automaton are so characteristic to Phalibois’ that there is little doubt that the Monkey is his creation, possibly one of a few presented at the 1878 Paris Exhibition. Extremely rare, ingeniously constructed, it mesmerizes an observer not only by the music but by uncanny mimics resembling more, as the Paris judges suggested, tableau animé than an automaton.
Alexandre Nicholas Théroude (1807-1892)
He came to Paris in 1823, at the age of sixteen. In 1832 he married and used his wife’s dowry of 18,000 francs to establish a toy making business. In 1840 he declared bankruptcy which, ironically, was responsible for his future success. The bankruptcy terms called for him to pay 20 cents on a dollar (franc) during the next five years. To avoid painful experiences with small toys he abandoned making such and began making large automata which became so successful that by 1845 he paid almost the entire debt and moved to a larger facility. During the 1449 Paris Industrial Exhibition he was already established as ”one of our foremost mechanical toy makers with no competition in foreign countries”.
Jean Marie Phalibois (1835-1900) was Théroude’s natural successor who, alongside pieces designed by older colleagues, expended the line for life-size automata, as for example, life-size lady playing on lyre (formerly in New York, International Doll Library Foundation). His most unusual automaton, “The Conversation on the Rooftop” showing cats walking over roof tiles, chimney pipes turning around, a student singing to a young lady while another with a guitar climbs to reach her from the other side, was not only a hit at the 1878 Paris Exposition but a clear testimony of his remarkable talent in designing and making automata. His very successful business was carried over by his son Edouart Henri well into the 20th century.
Vincenti & Cie.
The company was established by a Corsican, Jean Vincenti, in 1823 in Montbéliard, eastern France, almost at the border with Switzerland, where Vincenti's ancestors had settled already in 1791. The company specialized in manufacturing clock movements, by a force of 30 to 40 workers, using machines of their own invention. The company consistently made high quality movements as evidenced by awarded medals in 1834, 1839, 1844, and 1855 Paris Universal Expositions.