View of a courtyard, river and bridge, as seen from the inside of a transparent clock face.

Clock of the Académie Française, Paris, negative 1929–1932; print 1950s, André Kertész. 9 7/8 × 7 3/4 in.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.193.1. © Estate of André Kertész

With more hours spent in our homes, many of us have become more attuned to the passage of time, even if our clocks don’t tick, ring or chime. For some, a minute seems like an eternity, while for others an entire day is gone in the blink of an eye. In short, time is on our side… except when it isn’t.

Artists have explored time in many ways, from creating elaborate clocks full of time-related symbols to revisiting their subjects over time, to illustrating the absurdity of the concept of time itself. Getty’s collection includes many artistic interpretations of time, and below are a few that stand out.

Symbols of Time

List of dates illustrated with a blue, red and gold arch, a person in red, a blue ram.

A Youth; Zodiacal Sign of Aries, probably 1170s, German. Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment, leaf: 11 1/8 × 7 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 64 (97.MG.21), fol. 5. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Some of the most familiar symbols of time are images of the zodiac. Featuring twelve figures made using the configuration of constellations, these images have been used for thousands of years to track time, seasons, length of days, and yes, to define certain personality traits.

This leaf from a German illuminated manuscript shows a calendar representing the month of April. The circular diagram shows the increasing proportion of lightness to darkness for this month, and the zodiacal sign of Aries, the ram, decorates the middle of the page. It would have been easy for someone who was not literate to look at the symbols on the page and know the month they represented.

Standing clock, roman numerals, with a person reclining in the front, holding a scale. On top is a winged cherub.

Mantel Clock (Pendule), about 1715–1725, Movement maker Paul Gudin. Oak veneered with tortoise shell, blue-painted horn, brass, and ebony; enameled metal; gilt bronze mounts
39 3/4 × 18 1/8 × 11 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 72.DB.55. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

“Love conquering Time” has been a theme used by artists for centuries. In this elaborate French clock from the early 1700s, the cupid balanced on the top originally held a scythe stolen from Father Time, who reclines below and holds his scales. Cherubic figures like cupids and sensuous ones like Venus are often seen frolicking while old and weathered Father Time looks on disapprovingly. This well-known allegorical painting by Angolo Bronzino also illustrates this theme.

A satyr sits with a nude woman holding a child.

Dawn, about 1635–1642, Charles Le Brun. Black chalk, incised for transfer on light brown paper,  6 11/16 × 8 11/16 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.28.1. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

A nude man and woman recline against a wall. The woman faces the sky, while the man is turned toward the ground.

Night, about 1635–1642, Charles Le Brun. Black chalk, incised for transfer on light brown paper, 7 3/8 × 9 3/16 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.28.2. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Before he became First Painter to Louis XIV and one of the most famous artists in France, Charles Le Brun tackled a popular series that showed the passage of time through the four times of day. Popular art subjects at the time also included the four seasons, the four continents and the four elements.

Getty has two early Le Brun charcoal drawings that feature dawn and night. In Dawn, Le Brun uses familiar symbols such as a cockerel (since roosters crow at sunrise) and a fresh-faced female figure raising her head to welcome the day. In Night, the male figure representing night is asleep by a dying fire, a baby curled in his arms, while the woman recedes into the shadows.

Curious Timepieces

Black squarish bronze ham-hock hanging from a ring on a hook.

Portable Sundial in the Shape of a Ham, Roman, 8 B.C.–A.D. 79. Bronze and silver, 4 5/8 in. VEX.2019.1.33, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photo: Luigi Spina

Timekeeping has taken many forms, and before wind-up watches and digital clocks, you could find some pretty wild pieces. Recently the Getty Villa displayed this portable sundial shaped like a curing ham that was found at the Villa dei Papiri in Italy. It also happens to be the earliest known portable sundial from the Roman world.

To take a reading, the instrument was rotated so that the left side faced the sun, and a now-broken tail served as a pointer. Text from the Getty exhibition further explains its significance: “Its unique shape may be a playful link to Epicurean philosophy, with the pig as a symbol of tranquility and freedom from fear and death: piglet today, pork tomorrow – carpe diem.”

Opened book, page has a multi-layered dial with moveable triangles around the side.

Astronomical Vovelle, from Astronomical and Medical Miscellany, English, late fourteenth century, shortly after 1386. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XII 7, fol. 51

Another strange tool for measuring time is the volvelle, a medieval device described by former Getty curatorial assistant Rheagan Martin as “part timepiece, part floppy disk, and part crystal ball.”

Volvelles are concentric paper or parchment circles used to calculate the phases of the sun and moon that the owner could move and track on their own. The Getty collection includes one from 1386, and it is amazing that such a delicate device survives to this day. But buyer beware: volvelles and their users were often suspected of dark magic, perhaps because of their claims to predict the future.

Here you can see our volvelle in action:

Animation of a hand moving the hands on a multi-layered dial in a book.

Contemporary artists continue to find ways to present time, and Chris McCaw has harnessed the power of the sun to do just this. In his Sunburn series, McCaw uses cameras outfitted with vintage military lenses pointed directly at the sun for hours at a time. These function like magnifying glasses. The light burns through the emulsion layer and paper base of gelatin silver sheets, leaving behind singe marks and solarized passages. You can see the effect below as McCaw tracks the sun’s movement throughout the day. You can almost feel the immense heat as it rips through the paper.

Dark photo, a spear-like object angled diagonally from the top left to bottom right

Sunburned GSP #609 (San Francisco Bay), 2012, Chris McCaw Gelatin silver negative. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © Chris McCaw

As Time Passes…

Gears, screws and plates inside a watch or clock

What is insanity? a clock that forgets to run down, 1946, Man Ray. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 × 9 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.1000.128. © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

Our sense of time may be as warped as the clock in this May Ray photograph (aptly titled What is insanity? a clock that forgets to run down), but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to get it back on track. A daily diary can put time in perspective, while daily photographs can visually document everyday achievements and struggles.

Three images of the same man and woman: image 1, young, on a street; image 2, older, in a home and holding a baby; image three, older, with two pre-teen children and a baby.

Michael and Pam, 1973–1992, Milton Rogovin. Gelatin silver print. Composite image from 97.XM.43.3.1,.2,.3. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © Milton Rogovin

Artist Milton Rogovin is known for documenting his subjects throughout their lives, from mundane realities to major milestones. His series Michael and Pam shows a young couple in 1972— hip, well-coiffed, and looking very much in love. He follows them as they marry, welcome their children and show their age and maturity. By 1992 the suspenders and youthful swagger are replaced by a cozy living room and family photos.

Other artists, such as Camilo Jose Vergara or John Divola, take a similar approach using buildings. These artists and more were recently featured in the Getty exhibition Once. Again. Photographs in Series.

A woman holds a child atop a wall, while three more children play with the lambs and a man behind her holds a shovel. A robed person in a hat sits and reads outside the wall while his dog watches a herd of cows and smaller animals.

Spring Has Arrived, 1870, Ludwig Richter. Watercolor, graphite, gouache and touches of red chalk, 8 1/16 × 6 9/16 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2009.31. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Finally, an illustration for a family picture book gives us some hope for a better time. The watercolor celebrates the arrival of spring, with budding trees, nesting birds, children with newborn lambs, and ducklings all signifying the promise of renewal. However, notice that the family is enjoying this fine spring day behind the walls of their yard—a move that many of us can certainly imitate right now.