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Made by: Unknown

On view in: Dining Room

About this object

Hillwood’s clock case, one of five known examples of similar design and function, was made in Paris around 1785. The earliest model (located in a private collection today) was purchased by the French Crown in 1784 from clockmaker Jean-Baptiste-André Furet (1720-1807) and was subsequently presented to the French royal family as a New Year’s gift for the Dauphin at the Tuileries Palace in 1792. His mother, Marie Antoinette, felt that it was too precious a gift for the young prince and would have spoiled him, and the clock was returned to the Garde Meuble. That same year, the clock was first described in the records of the Cabinet of Machines at the Louvre as Pendule dite La Négresse (Negress clock). The other three examples are conserved in the Royal Collection Trust, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Palacio Real, Madrid. These pieces were not merely clocks, but also musical automaton— there were clock works in the head and a miniature organ in the base. Numerals in the eyes tell the time and earrings, when pulled, would activate the digits and start the music box playing.

Although highly finished with gilt bronze, bronze, and marble, Hillwood’s piece is purely a case. The movements in the head that would have activated the digits in the eyes, as well as the music chimes, are missing. Additionally, the base is not pierced, suggesting that an organ was never installed, and the eyes are made of wood instead of porcelain. The earrings are short, openwork spheres, while in other examples they are long and dangling. Thus, it is an unfinished piece, but one that would have been destined for an important royal or aristocratic client. Perhaps it was never completed due to the French Revolution, which began just four years after the clock case was made. Beginning in the Renaissance (14th to 17th century), a systematic use of specific iconography was employed and disseminated in Western Europe to illustrate allegories of the Four Continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America), which were how Europeans at the time conceived of the world’s divisions. Within this framework, the personification by Europeans of “Africa” as a Moorish woman (dark-skinned Muslim from Northern Africa), partially nude, wearing an elephant-head crest, coral necklace, and pendant earrings, holding a scorpion and cornucopia full of grain, while surrounded by a fierce lion and poisonous snakes, was described and illustrated in a series of popular engravings of emblematic representations and allegories, including all four continents, in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (Rome, 1603). During the late seventeenth century, the figure of the Blackamoor, a derogatory term for Black Moors often depicted in Western art and design in exoticized forms, as well as in positions of servitude at court, was contrived in European court culture to represent exoticism, luxury fashion, and baroque excess. King Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715) incorporated many Blackamoor figures in the architectural design and decoration of his new court at Versailles, influencing aristocratic interiors and other international courts of Europe. As a result of trade and travel, exotic representations of the Four Continents continued to be employed as decorative themes in the arts of Western Europe during the eighteenth century. Visible in the design of Hillwood’s clock, there was a mixing of attributes of the Blackamoor from North Africa, represented by the turban with plumed feathers and long earrings, with the allegory of America, represented by the huntress with a quiver and bow. The aesthetic contrast of the Black figure with the gilt bronze and white marble base was also particularly striking during the period. The trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved African people conducted by Europeans during the eighteenth century sustained an interest in mythical Africa, and its exotic properties were expressed in the arts and material culture through real and imagined Black figures. The intentional awareness, symbolism, and taste for the Black body became fashionable in the decoration of Parisian interiors, as well as country houses in England and palazzos in Venice. During the late eighteenth century, the Blackamoor became a decorative staple in luxury households across Europe, exported around the world in imitation of the royal court of Versailles.

Object name:
Made from:
Bronze -- gilt bronze -- marble
Made in:
Paris, France
Date made:
ca. 1785
74.9 × 39.4 cm (29 1/2 × 15 1/2 in.)

Detailed information for this item

Catalog number:
Signature marks:
Credit line:
Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973