Stories of a Rediscovery: The Louis XV Rhinoceros Musical Table Clock by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain

Stories of a Rediscovery: The Louis XV Rhinoceros Musical Table Clock by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain

T his bronze rhinoceros table clock, offered in the upcoming Rediscovered: Important 18th Century Furniture sale, was sculpted in the mid-18th century after the most famous living model of the time, a female rhinoceros originally from India, named Clara. She was the fifth rhinoceros to arrive in Europe and the second to earn international celebrity status, the first being the famous rhinoceros engraved by Dürer in 1515.

The one-year old rhino was collected by Jan Albert Sichterman, the Bengal Director of the Dutch East India Company and he named her Clara as she arrived in Rotterdam on 22 July, 1741 and was immediately showcased to the public. The success of these exhibitions prompted her owner to undertake a European tour which proved to be a tremendous success.

The tour only officially began during the spring of 1746 in Hanover and Berlin, where on 26 April she was presented to King Frederick II of Prussia. In January 1749, she was received by King Louis XV at the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. From February onwards she spent five months in Paris in the barracks at the Saint-Germain fair on Rue des Quatre Vents, where she was sketched by Jean-Baptiste Oudry and served as a model for the famous life-size painting now kept at the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin.

Drawing of Clara the rhinoceros by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

Clara’s popularity was such that books, epigrams and even a lyrical poem were published about her, and so the fashion for rhinoceros ornaments began. She was certainly a source of inspiration for merchants and craftsmen.

Rhinoceros clocks were much favoured by the French Royal family: one, in Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at the Tuileries Palace, featured a “pendulum carried by a rhinoceros posing on an ormolu gilded base, the animal carrying on its back a drum in which the striking movement has the name JB Baillon”. Another “carillon pendulum representing a rhinoceros supporting the clock and placed on a plated cabinet base (in green horn) and furnished with gilded bronze” was at Saint-Cloud.

The interpretation of the rhinoceros present on this lot could have been directly inspired by the extensively studied Clara. Saint-Germain produced several versions of the timepiece with slight variations based on this model, which was also produced by various other clockmakers.

Among the rhinoceros musical clocks signed or attributed to the bronzier Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, it is worth mentioning two in particular: one currently displayed at the Palais Galliera and the other one in the Louvre Museum's collections.

Rhinoceros musical clock in the Louvre collection

Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain designed a large number of clocks. A commercial prospectus produced after he established his business at Rue Saint-Nicolas shows the extent of his production and activity: “Saint-Germain, master in chasing, modelling and founding, makes and sells all kinds of boxes and bases in tortoiseshell, gold, bronze, cabinet fittings, fire irons, grills, chandeliers, girandoles, pendulum bases, cartel clocks of all kinds, elephant, lion, bull and other wax models, all at a fair price”.

Pierre ler Gille also known as Gille l’Ainé, whose signature is on the enamel dial, clock movement and musical movement of this clock, became a master watchmaker in 1746. He worked for Augustus II of Saxony and used cases made by the great cabinetmakers and bronziers of the time.

French & Continental Furniture

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