Part of a new decorative arts acquisition at the Getty Museum, this gilded wall clock is full of symbolism on the fleeting nature of time
With the start of a new year, it is hard to avoid the issue of time’s swift passage. Museums acquire objects made at different times by human hands in order to preserve the tangible results of cultural achievement for the edification and delight of current and future generations. The objects in a museum serve as time’s footprints—each item reveals something about the time in which it was produced, and our individual reactions to these objects reveal our state of mind at the moment we encounter them. This is magical.
Museums do not stop time; but, like all institutions, they change over time and require the active engagement of collectors, professionals, scholars, and visitors to help preserve the heritage of all people. In life there are no spectators. By visiting and patronizing museums we actively extend time through our conscious interactions with objects created in the past. It is as amazing to consider how quickly time passes as it is to marvel at what has been achieved by human passion and ingenuity within its limited scope.
The J. Paul Getty Museum has recently acquired a significant group of French decorative arts from a private collector, Dr. Horace Wood Brock, whose passion and commitment to the art of the 18th century has benefited visitors to the Museum since it opened at the Getty Center in 1997. At that time, the first loans from Brock’s collection were put on display in the permanent collection galleries, where they have remained since.
Among these works is an extraordinary gilt-bronze wall clock in the form of a winged clock face set against a cloud. Attached directly to the wall, it appears suspended in air—time flying before us.
Clocks were expensive and important works of technology in the 18th century that appealed to Enlightenment sensibilities and were also significant status items. Gilt-bronze pieces such as this clock were not just produced for utility, but were also objects of great curiosity and luxury. They were created to harmonize closely with the elaborate interiors of the time through the opulence of design and finish.
Indeed, the 17th and 18th centuries were the great age for the development and production of the mechanical clock. Innovations in technology led to the introduction of numerous new types of clocks and watches. In France, one of the most popular types was the wall clock. Made to be hung on the wall, these were freed from the design constraints that otherwise linked clocks closely to furniture, as was necessary for clock cases that rested directly on the floor (as with long-case clocks) or those placed on a raised surface such as a mantelpiece. Wall clocks could therefore assume more sculptural aspects—an advantage that was exploited to the full during the 18th century and is evident in the imaginative composition of this example.
Gilt bronze had become a prominent material for making wall clocks at the time. And, by the end of the 18th century, workers in gilt bronze achieved a level of technical perfection in their craft that remains unparalleled. The intricate, jewel-like finish that was characteristic of the era can be seen in the finely executed details of this clock case.
All the elements making up the decoration of this clock refer to the fleeting nature of time. The winged clock face refers to the ancient symbol for time, an hourglass with wings. The branches of laurel (symbolizing fame) and the garland of flowers (symbolizing transience) surrounding the clock indicate that time conquers all. The ensemble is meant to remind us of the ancient Roman poet Horace’s dictum carpe diem (seize the day).
Although time does fly before us, and we can be discouraged by its brevity, we can interact with former times in the objects we encounter at a museum. By treasuring the past we appreciate life’s possibilities. Even if we have seen a piece before, we do not perceive an object the same way twice—our responses change over time—we are always encountering them anew. So, Happy New Year, seize the day, and look at some art.
See this wall clock in the Getty Center’s South Pavilion, Gallery S116.