Two French clocks depicting Paul et Virginie

Contributor: Hélène Cussac

Location: Collection Baronne et Baron François Duesberg, Musée François Duesberg, Mons, Belgium/Private Collection, France.

Description: Paul et Virginie, the novella by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, published in 1788 and a best-seller throughout the 19th Century, was particularly celebrated by the decorative arts. Saint-Pierre’s pastorale, which speaks of moral values such as innocence, virtue, charity, the family and work, corresponded perfectly to the bourgeois values developed at the end of the ‘Ancien Régime’. It catered also on the one hand to a pronounced taste for the exotic, which the story offered thanks to its setting in the natural countryside of the Île de France (Mauritius) and, on the other, to contemporary interest in the concept of the ‘noble savage’ as represented by the enslaved Africans, actors in the fiction. Hence fans, plates, screens, magic lanterns, armchairs and sofas covered in toile de Jouy, and wallpapers were decorated with episodes from the novel. From the period of the Directoire, through the Empire and the Restoration, one ornamental object was particularly fashionable : the clock, decorated with characters in the story. This remarkable clock was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 with a view to gifting it to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre himself.

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