Rare Matte and Burnished Gilt Bronze and White Carrara Marble Cercles Tournants Mantel Clock "Thetis Dipping Achilles in the River Styx", Louis XVI period
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The Case by Etienne Martincourt
Rare Matte and Burnished Gilt Bronze and White Carrara Marble Cercles Tournants Mantel Clock
"Thetis Dipping Achilles in the River Styx"
Paris, Louis XVI period, circa 1775-1780
Height 39.5 cm; width 29 cm; depth 18 cm
- Christian Baulez, “Martincourt et Riesener, Une collaboration fructueuse et méconnue”, in L’Estampille/L’Objet d’art, n° 531, February 2017, pp. 56-65.
- Probably the same clock that was valued at 150 francs in August 1801 in the probate inventory of Parisian lawyer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Ignace Gattrez: “121. A cadran tournant clock in a vase-shaped case on a white marble base, with figures representing Thetis and her son Achilles”.
The superimposed ring dials indicate the Roman numeral hours and the Arabic numeral five-minute intervals on two gilt brass cercles tournants dials featuring enamel cartouches alternating with decorative motifs; they are placed between two plain bands, one of which bears the signature “Lepaute Horloger”. The movement is housed in an urn that is partially covered by a drapery and is decorated with two flower and leaf garlands suspended from roundels. The urn’s lower portion and pedestal are adorned with leaves, stems, and gadrooning. To one side of the urn is an athenienne tripod stand with a flame in its basin, fluted legs terminating in goats’ hooves, and a central stem that is decorated with leaves and spiral fluting. On the other side a magnificent standing female figure in classical draperies whose hair is tied up in a scarf, is holding a young child upside down by its foot. She represents Thetis as she plunges her son Achilles into the waters of the River Styx. The clock is placed on a terrace that is centered by a medallion in a reserve and is decorated with bead friezes, which in turn stands upon a quadrangular base whose protruding façade is adorned with reserves embellished with scroll friezes and leaf bouquets with seeds and berries. The clock is raised upon four large feet that are decorated with fluting and laurel friezes.
The unusual design of the present clock is based on a theme drawn from Greek mythology. It shows the sea nymph Thetis, who had had seven sons by her husband King Peleus. She plunged her children into fire in an attempt to make them immortal. The first six died, but Achilles, the seventh, was saved by his father. Still hoping to make her last surviving son immortal, Thetis dipped him into the waters of the River Styx, for an oracle had predicted that Achilles would later be killed in the Trojan War. However, while dipping the child into the water, Thetis held him firmly by the heel. This detail would later be very important, for Achilles’s heel remained his only vulnerable spot. When the Greeks penetrated into the city of Troy, the young prince Paris shot an arrow into the brave hero’s heel, killing him instantly.
To the best of our knowledge, this iconography appears on only one other 18th century Parisian clock. The present clock was created circa 1775 by founder-chaser Etienne Martincourt. Quite surprisingly, the original commercial drawing of the clock has survived; it is the drawing number 114 in an album today in the Paris Institut national d’Histoire de l’Art (formerly the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet), and is pictured in H. Ottomer and P. Pröschel, Vergoldete Bronzen, Die Bronzearbeiten des Spätbarock und Klassizismus, Band I, Munich, 1986, p. 228, fig. 4.1.8). Today only a very small number of similar clocks are known. One, with blue and gold enamel cercles tournants, and which is lacking several decorative elements, is in the Spanish Royal Collection (illustrated in J-D. Augarde, Les ouvriers du Temps, La pendule à Paris de Louis XIV à Napoléon Ier, Genève, 1996, p. 149, fig. 113, and in J. Ramon Colon de Carvajal, Catalogo de Relojes del Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, 1987, p. 93).
Given the date of the present clock, the signature “Lepaute Horloger” is probably that of Pierre-Basile Lepaute, known as Sully-Lepaute (1750-1843), one of the most important Parisian clockmakers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Etienne Martincourt (circa 1730-1796)
One of the most important Parisian founder-chasers of the second half of the 18th century. He became a master founder in July 1762, becoming a master sculptor and painter of the Académie de Saint-Luc the following year. He must have become famous quite rapidly, for by 1766, two clocks of his design are mentioned as being part of an exhibition/sale that took place in the workshop of the king’s clockmaker Jean-André Lepaute. For nearly two decades, Martincourt worked for the Duchess of Mazarin and collaborated with Jean-Henri Riesener, cabinetmaker to Queen Marie-Antoinette, with whom he worked to create some of the greatest masterpieces of French cabinetmaking of the 18th century, including the jewel cabinet of the Countess de Provence in Versailles Palace (made in 1787), which is today in the Royal British Collection.
Pierre-Basile Lepaute, known as Sully-Lepaute (1750-1843)
Was one of the most important Parisian clockmakers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the mid 1760’s he went to work with his uncles, who were also clockmakers, and began his training in the family workshop. In the early days he was in partnership with his uncle and cousin, in 1789 becoming sole owner of the workshop. Toward the end of the 18th century, he and his nephew Jean-Joseph Lepaute founded a new company that was active until 1811 and won a silver medal at the 1806 Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie. In 1811, his nephew opened his own workshop, while Pierre-Basile and his son Pierre-Michel (1785-1849) founded a new firm called “Lepaute et fils”. For several decades they were the principal suppliers of clocks to the Imperial and Royal Garde-Meuble; they were named, successively, Horloger de l’Empereur and Horloger du Roi.
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