This rare and sumptuous clock is a masterpiece of the mature Louis XV style, combining the beautifully sculptural Vincennes group ‘L’Heure du Berger’ with extraordinary fluid and muscular gilt-bronze mounts, almost certainly by the artistic director at Vincennes, Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis (1699-1774), a supremely talented metalworker and influential tastemaker through his avant garde designs for the Vincennes and Sèvres factories.
Its provenance is just as remarkable, as it was made for Jean-Baptiste de Machault d’Arnouville (1701-94), at the time one of the most powerful men at the court of Louis XV and a close confidante of Madame de Pompadour, whose position as Contrôleur Général des Finances put him in direct charge of the Vincennes factory, with direct access to its finest creations, and indeed for several years he would receive a special New Year’s Day present (or ‘etrenne’) from the factory. The factory records contain a bill on 31 December 1749 to Claude le Boitteux for 1,150 livres ‘pour la pendule donnée à Monsieur le Contrôleur Général’- the date of the bill would suggest that this was indeed a New Year’s Day gift for Machault from the factory (see Préaud & d’Albis op. cit,. p. 169). Claude Le Boitteux is recorded at the Vincennes factory as a supplier of 'formes et montures' from 1747-52. A further example of a special commission from the Sèvres factory for a high-ranking dignitary is the celebrated ‘Vase Japon’ made in 1774 for Henri Bertin, then Secretary of State (among his specific responsibilities was the Compagnie des Indes), which was derived from a print he owned of an archaic Chinese bronze, part of a catalogue of works of art in the Imperial Chinese collection created for the Emperor Qianlong. This Sèvres ‘Vase Japon’ is now in the Frick Collection, New York (acquired in honor of Anne Poulet, 2011).
THE ATTRIBUTION OF THE MOUNTS TO DUPLESSIS
The remarkable fluidity and extraordinary finesse of the surface treatment and ciselure of the gilt-bronzes on this clock point to the oeuvre of Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis (1699-1774), a presiding artistic genius of the Louis XV period who was not only orfèvre du roi but also artistic director of the Vincennes and Sèvres porcelain factories. Interestingly, one of the few examples of work in gilt-bronze that can be securely attributed to him is a spectacular pair of braziers, signed by Duplessis and commissioned in 1742 as a diplomatic gift to the Turkish Ambassador by none other than Machault d’Arnouville (one of which is now in the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul). These display a similar sense of organic freedom and extraordinary technical prowess, while clearly demonstrating how early in his career Machault established links with the great sculpteur and bronzier (H. Ottomeyer & P. Pröschel, Vergoldete Bronzen, Munich, 1986, vol. I, pp. 120-1, figs 2.7.2-4). Duplessis is also likely to have provided the extravagant gilt-bronze base for the Vincennes figure group ‘La Source’, acquired in 1757 by Duvaux and sold to his fellow marchand-mercier Thomas-Joachim Hébert, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (see D. Alcouffe et al., Gilt Bronzes in the Louvre, Paris, 2004, pp. 100-1, cat. 46).
THE PORCELAIN MODEL
This rare porcelain model is probably inspired by the engraving Le repos de Diane by Jean Pelletier (b. 1736) after the painting by François Boucher (illustrated here). The factory's inventory of 1 October 1752 lists seventeen 'Groupes heures du Berger', priced at 40 livres each. Other than the Machault clock, the first recorded sale of this model was on 25 January 1753 to a M. De Crillon at a cost of 120 livres (quoted by T. Préaud and A. d'Albis, op. cit., 1991, p. 169, where the authors suggest this higher price may be because the group was also mounted). This example was originally fired in 1750, therefore not long after the delivery of the Machault clock. Other examples of this rare form include one in the Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres; one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, ob. no. EC.3-1944, previously sold at Sotheby's London, the Property of a Lady, 14 July 1944, lot 28; and a less elaborately mounted example in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, mus. no. C356-1909, gifted by Joseph Henry Fitzhenry. An unmounted version of the model sold at Sotheby's, London, 27 October 2015, lot 9 (£97,500).
JEAN-BAPTISTE DE MACHAULT D’ARNOUVILLE (1701-94)
Jean-Baptiste de Machault d’Arnouville, the youngest son of the chief of police, Louis-Charles de Machault, had a glittering political career. He attained important political posts in his 20s, rapidly ascending to his appointment in 1743 as Secrétaire d’Etat à la Guerre and then in 1745 as Contrôleur Général des Finances, at a time when France’s finances were severely depleted. To raise revenues he imposed a blanket series of new taxes, which incurred the wrath not only of the regional governors but also of the Church, which cast him in a favorable light with Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s celebrated favorite mistress, who was constantly trying to coax the king away from being too devout, which of course threatened her position. Machault’s close ties to Madame de Pompadour, a passionate collector of the arts, must have inspired his own collecting as he furnished the château d’Arnouville and the Parisian hôtel on the rue du Grand Chantier which he had inherited from his father.
Remarkably, Machault strengthened his position further by being appointed Garde des Sceaux in 1750 - as he continued to be Louis XV’s chief finance minister and could count on Madame de Pompadour’s continued support, he was arguably now the most powerful man in France, with his annual income an enormous 400,000 livres. He furnished both the château d'Arnouville and his hôtel in the latest taste, using the best dealers such as Thomas-Joachim Hébert and Lazare Duvaux, with dazzling mounted porcelains, lacquer furniture by BVRB, bronzes by Susini, silver by François-Thomas-Germain and a remarkable assemblage of Boulle furniture. Machault fell out of favour with Madame de Pompadour in 1757 and he was forced to retire from court life, although the collection was still added to after his retirement, as remarkably he continued to receive annual gifts from Sèvres until 1768.
BENOIST GÉRARD (1684-1758)
Benoist II Gérard and his son, Jean-Benoist, collaborated under the same signature from 1743 until the former's death in 1758. By 1748 they were located on the rue Dauphine and in 1752 they moved to the quai Conti.