The case of this clock can be attributed to Claude Galle, (1759-1815), an important bronzier and gilder working in Paris and supplying furnishing bronzes to royal households throughout Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century. He became a master in 1786 and worked with Thomire and others for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. He is known to have supplied the Emperor Napoleon with numerous items for the Grand Trianon and Compi and candlesticks for Fontainebleau.
Galle used the vase from of this case not only for clocks but as ewers and vases and it is the clock and automaton maker, Jean Francois DeBelle who is credited with creating this spectacular clock. DeBelle was a pupil of the great horologist Robert Robin and became master in 1781. He appears to have been somewhat of a maverick, working outside the guilds but popular for his fine work. He became court clockmaker to Louis XVI. Having been so closely associated with the court, he went into hiding during the revolution. It is believed that his talents were bought to the noice of the Emperor Napoleon as he had supplied two vase clocks to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and Spain. These clocks are currently in the Madrid National Museum. Similar to the present clock, they lack the singing bird which adds such delightful surprise to this piece.
Napoleon and Josephine were married in 1796 and were crowned Emperor and Empress of France in 1804. In 1805 Napoleon asked DeBelle to make an automaton clock as a gift to the Empress and one year later the clock was delivered and became a firm favourite, remaining with her at Malmaison following her divorce from the Emperor. After her death in 1814, her property went to the children of her first marriage, Eugene and Hortense.
A very similar clock in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Fig. 1, is claimed to be the Empress clock and is said to have been taken to Philadelphia when Joseph Bonaparte emigrated there in 1815. However, it is unlikely that Josephine would have wished her beloved clock to be given to a member of the Bonaparte family. It was donated to the Institute in 1936 by Mrs S Warren Ingersoll.
Whichever is the true Empress clock may never be known but they are both extraordinarily fine examples of Empire craftsmanship and a tribute to their creators.
Bronze, painted brass, steel, glass, stained peacock feathers
82.5cm. 32½in. high
Chapuis, Alfred & Droz, Edmond, Automata, New York, 1958. fig. 112
Ikle Collection, Switzerland
Time Museum, Rockford Illinois, Inventory no. 695 sold Sotheby's New York, 19th June 2002, Lot 216