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.

Paul et Virginie had already provided the subject for an exceptional mantelpiece clock in white statuary marble and gilded bronze built by Dieudonné Kinable, one of the most important Parisian clockmakers around 1795. The first clock illustrated here, a monumental work (70 cm high and 72 cm wide), was created in the years from 1810 to 1820 by Thomire, one of the most famous bronzesmiths of the time. Now held in the François Duesberg Museum in Mons (Belgium), it illustrates a famous episode known as ‘the palanquin’. This is the passage in which the adolescent Paul and Virginie, lost in the forest, are found by their dog, Fidèle, and then returned to their mothers by fugitives from slavery.

The first illustration of this episode, often reproduced, is based on a coloured engraving by Jean-Frédéric Schall from about 1791-1794. This was entitled The Triumph of Virtue because the two adolescents had originally gone to beg mercy for one of the fugitives from a white slave-owner. This episode was, in fact, typically read as a story of the triumph of virtuously enlightened – and white — sensibility and benevolence.  Thomire’s clock accordingly shows the characters of Paul and Virginie, in chiselled gilded bronze, right at the top of the clock. The height is due to their position on the palanquin, but it also signifies their elevation as virtuous and benevolent young people. The bodies of the enslaved Africans that bear their palanquin are rendered in the visual language of antique Beauty. The representation of Black otherness is thus rendered ‘acceptable’ to a white European audience thanks to this idealisation à l’antique which looks to embellish and ennoble it.  The neo-classical aesthetic is further emphasised through the finely ornamented drapery and in the Joséphine de Beauharnais Empire-style dress. One notices the high quality of the chiselling and the gilding of the bronze, notably in the details of Virginie’s dress, in the movement given to the petticoat and the dog and through the drapery formed by the material on the palanquin falling to the back of the dial. The gilded bronze and the patinated bronze harmonise well together: the base, in patinated bronze, a medium which is also reserved for the figures of the enslaved people, represents in bas-relief on each side the vegetation of the island symbolised by a palm tree and foliage, and, at its centre, a frieze recounting the reunion of the two families on the edge of the forest. For contemporaries, the clock imagined the French colony as a version of Eden, even if the novel itself was concerned to show Eden compromised by corruption.

But if the most prestigious clocks of the early 19th century were realised by well-known clockmakers and bronzesmiths, artisans of lesser renown produced artefacts for decades for a less well-off bourgeois clientele which also celebrated a simpler, more virtuous life. Thus, for example, this 50cm high clock, of which there exist at least two examples, one in gilded bronze, the other in bronze and gilded white metal dating from 1847. The dial is surmounted by a palm tree on which Paul is leaning, relaxed, scanning the horizon, one hand above his eyes, awaiting the return of Virginie on the Saint-Géran. On the other side of the dial are work tools, Paul’s spade and watering can, in praise of agricultural work, as celebrated in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the physiocrats. Paul’s simple gardener’s outfit, completed by a straw hat lying at the foot of the exotic tree, such as one sees in illustrated editions of the novel, reinforces the idea of a providential nature, illustrated again by the ornamental plinth, sitting on four feet and decorated with horns of plenty and branches of vines surrounded by seashells. The ethic and the aesthetic of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel, which emblematise so many aspects of Romantic sensibility, continued thus, thanks to industrial production, to occupy a physical and imaginative place in French interior decoration sixty years after its first publication.

Between each tick of each of these clocks on French mantelpieces, however, sit the silences of colonial history. Celebrating a proto-revolutionary story of virtue nurtured by nature, they are silent on what happened in other French colonies after the French Revolution.  Between 1783 and 1791 Saint-Domingue (Haiti) accounted for a third of the Atlantic slave-trade, slavery was abolished in 1793, and in 1804 the Haitian Revolution, after terrible atrocities, was eventually accomplished. It is salutary to think that 1802, when Napoleon commissioned this clock from Thomire, was also the year that Bonaparte set about re-introducing African slavery to Saint Domingue.

Date: 1810-20

Creator: Thomire

Subject: Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

Media rights: Collection Baronne et Baron François Duesberg/Private Collection.

Object type: Clock

Format: bronze

Publisher: Musée François Duesberg/Hélène Cussac