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Home | Articles | George Washington in Bronze: A Survey of the Memorial Clocks

ven if, in the two centuries since his death, the image of George Washington has been reduced to the likeness on the dollar bill, to his contemporaries, Washington was an icon of heroic proportion. He was a preeminent figure in the formation of the new nation, and the collective grief following his death in 1799 prompted an outpouring of broadsides, graphic images, and epic poetry that was instrumental in transforming the real Washington into a mythic “Father of his Country.”1 Prominent among these tributes is a French gilt bronze Washington clock, conceived as an allegory of his life [Fig. 1].

Fig. 1: An example of the larger clock with the mature likeness of Washington that is commonly paired with an eagle, with wing tips pointing down, head facing left, perched with one foot on an orb with olive branch, the other on a shield with arrows. Courtesy, Israel Sack, Inc.
The Washington clock was the work of a French pendulier, a maker of bronze clock cases for whom allegorical subjects were a specialty.2 In fact, the clock adheres to a tradition of French design that reached its zenith under the ancient regime of the eighteenth century. During this time, bronziers, as the allied trades that produced cast bronze are collectively known, were sometimes trained sculptors as well as foundrymen, resulting in the strong link between clock design and academic sculpture.

With the upheavals of the French Revolution, the tradition of French bronzeclock making was disrupted, only to be revived under the influences of the

Industrial Revolution. While owing much of the design to the preceding period, bronziers found that industrialization allowed for more efficient and economical manufacture of the mantel clocks, resulting in the production of larger quantities—impossible had Washington died fifty years earlier.

What follows is the first systematic study of the variations among the Washington clocks. Over the years many such clocks have surfaced, either in private or public collections, and enough published images are now available to attempt a preliminary survey.

Analysis of Washington Clocks

Fig. 2: Washington at the Battle of Trenton, attributed to the China Trade painter Spoilum (w.1770–1805) after the Cheesman mezzotint. Courtesy, Ronald Bourgeault, Northeast Auctions.

Washington clocks conform to a fairly standard model that consists of an oblong decorative base coupled with allegorical figure(s) with requisite attributes, and a boxy plinth that holds the clock itself. The clocks portray the general, standing in uniform, resting his left hand on the hilt of a sword and holding a scroll in his right.4 This pose is derived from the painting General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull, commissioned in 1792 and engraved by John Cheeseman in 1796 [Fig. 2].5 The figure of Washington on the clock holds a scroll in his right hand rather than the spyglass held in the portrait. An emblem of history, the scroll casts Washington in his new role as philosopher, statesman, and “Father of his Country.”

The clock itself is mounted within a plinth supporting an American eagle with the motto “E pluribus unum,” from the Great Seal of the United States. Below the dial, draped between torches, is a banner inscribed with the familiar eulogy that begins, “First in War…,” from Major-General Henry Lee’s Funeral Oration on the Death of General Washington, published as a pamphlet in early 1800.

These basic features are common to nearly all the clocks. The most obvious difference among the published examples is that the components were assembled to make at least two versions of the clock, distinguished by overall size and by their characteristic set of supplemental decorative mounts. Within these two groups of clocks, further variations occur more or less systematically.

The taller clock [Fig. 1] is approximately 20 inches high. It has a more substantial base to which is applied a frieze depicting

Washington relinquishing his sword (or, perhaps, receiving his sword). The meaning of the scene has been interpreted in several ways, but is most likely a reference to the Roman citizen-soldier Cincinnatus, to whom Washington was often compared.6 Applied to the side of the plinth is a trophy of arms, composed of a bow with arrows, a club, and a feathered headdress, all attributes of the personification of America. The supplemental decoration on the case consists of typical neoclassical motifs. Stylized palm fronds flank the frieze on either side. Intertwined laurel wreaths, the victor’s crown, ornament the ends of the base. The scroll spandrels above the dial are distinctive multipointed stars.

The smaller version [Fig. 3] omits the frieze, reducing the overall height to about 15 inches. In its place, the base is decorated with a mask of Apollo, placed between leaf-capped scrolls terminating in pomegranates, a symbol of resurrection.7 The side mount on the plinth is a winged male figure holding a laurel wreath in each hand. The spandrels above the dial consist of anthemion and scrolls.

Fig. 4: A variation of the small version with
the mature likeness of Washington. Courtesy, Hirschl and Adler Galleries; Private collection.

On several of the smaller clocks, the quote from Lee is garbled: “The First in WAR · First in PEACE / And in his COUNTRYMEN [sic] HEARTS.” On all the larger clocks, the banner accurately quotes Lee: “First in WAR, first in PEACE, first in the hearts of his COUNTRYMEN.” It is probable that this was an error found on earlier clocks that was corrected on later examples.

The standing figure of Washington is essentially the same on all the clocks. There are, however, two distinct representations of Washington’s features, probably based on the two most widely circulated graphic likenesses published prior to the design of the clock. Most of the figures have a relatively young visage that
resembles a 1780 painting by John Trumbull of Washington as general of the Army [Fig. 3]. A mezzotint of the entire picture by Valentine Green was published in London in 1781. Green then issued a bust-length likeness in 1783.

A minority of the Washington figures are depicted with an older head derived from images of a mature Washington [Figs. 1, 4]. This representation resembles a portrait of Washington by the Massachusetts artist Edward Savage, painted for Harvard College in 1789. Convinced that he could make a fortune selling an engraved likeness, Savage went to London and issued a stipple engraving based on the portrait in 1792. In 1793, a larger, more elaborate mezzotint was published. Since all the clocks are posthumous, the apparent aging of Washington’s visage is, by itself, a dubious indicator of chronology.

Fig. 3: A typical version of the small clock with the younger likeness of Washington and eagle displayed with wing tips raised, head facing right, perched with both feet on an orb, clutching arrows and an olive branch in his claws, a shield at his breast.
In this example, the eulogy is quoted correctly. Courtesy, Hirschl and Adler Galleries; private collection.
There is also a change in the form of the clocks’ eagle finials that correlates with the type of head found on Washington’s body. On all of the smaller clocks, and on most of the larger examples, the eagle is displayed with wing tips raised [Figs. 3, 4]. This eagle is modeled to resemble the Great Seal. A second eagle, found exclusively on the larger clocks, is depicted with wing tips that point down, head facing left [Figs. 1, 6]. This eagle is most often paired with the
older Washington.

It is tempting to see an evolution of the design from small to large clock and from young to old likeness. There are enough exceptions to this progression, however, to suggest that all various components of the case were available to the maker(s) during the entire course of the clock’s manufacture. For example, the mature head is found on at least one small clock [Fig. 4], and on an example of the larger version, the eagle is replaced by a pyramid, dated MDCCLXXVI, with an “All-Seeing Eye” borrowed from the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States [Fig. 5]. These examples suggest that the design could be altered to suit the intended client.

Fig. 5: A unique version of the large clock with the
younger likeness of Washington on which the “All-Seeing Eye” from the Great Seal replaces the eagle.
Courtesy, Jonathan Snellenburg, Inc.
By far the most compelling evidence for the continued availability of all the mounts is an elaborate variant of the large model with numerous additional attributes making reference to other achievements of Washington’s career [Fig. 6].8 The supplemental mounts are an array of features from both versions of the clock. The winged youth, for example, found on the side of the small cases reappears on the base of a globe adjacent to the plinth. The palm fronds on the base have acquired a few more scrolls and flowerheads essentially borrowed from the small version.

Identifying the Maker of Washington Clocks

The clocks are fitted with a striking movement of standard design, known today as the pendule de Paris, which was used in virtually all similar bronze decorative cases.9 What can be inferred about the generally accepted “maker” of the clocks is sketchy and circumstantial given the complexities of clock making.

The parts of any case or movement required the widely diverse skills of many allied trades. So many trades, in fact, that the actual “makers’” names, when they survive at all, take the form of scratched signatures on concealed surfaces of the clock. The name seen on the dial of the clock is often the name of the businessman who coordinated the manufacture. After 1800, as clock production became mechanized, dials bearing a retailer’s name are increasingly common.

The name and location found on the dial of all but a few Washington clocks is “Dubuc” at “rue Michel-le-Compte no.33, à Paris.” Located in the neighborhood of St. Martins-des-Champs, this area was populated by bronze workers rather than clockmakers.10 Thus, Dubuc’s address implies that he was a bronzier who fabricated the cases and fitted them with signed movements bought from the clock trade, involving himself perhaps more with production than acting purely as a retailer.

There is further evidence that supports this hypothesis. A bronzier with the surname Dubuc is recorded working by 1786.11 This is presumably Jean-Baptiste Dubuc (b. 1743), who held a warrant as maître-horloger to the Compte D’Artois, brother of Louis XVI. From 1775 until 1798, he is also recorded as a member of several Masonic lodges in Paris, suggesting that he, like George Washington, was a prominent Freemason.

In 1804, Jean-Baptiste, now called Dubuc l’ainé, a pendulier (i.e., a maker of bronze clock cases), worked on rue du Grenier Sainte-Lazare. From 1806 to 1817 he is found on rue Michel-le-Compte, which was, in fact, the same street after it crossed rue Bambourg. Jean-Baptiste would have styled himself l’ainé (senior) presumably when his son set up shop after about 1800 as Dubuc le jeune (junior), two blocks away, on rue des Gravilliers.

The study of the Washington clocks is by no means complete. As yet, there is little documentary evidence to reveal who designed the clock, who first commissioned its manufacture, and who acted as importer into the new nation.

Fig. 6: An unusually elaborate version of the clock incorporating additional attributes including a telescope and protractor, a globe, and a tablet proclaiming, “America the Asylum of the Oppressed.” Other features have been rearranged. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum.
The only clue about the American connections of the clock is an example with a dial signed “Demilt, New Yorck [sic].” Thomas Demilt and his partners, Benjamin and Samuel, were listed in New York directories at 156 Water Street and then 239 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan from about 1800 to 1848. They are variously recorded as silversmiths, watch and clock makers, and suppliers of chronometers. As virtually no watches, much less chronometers, were manufactured in the United States in the early nineteenth century, it was common practice for American retailers to order these timepieces abroad, signed with their own names.12 In addition, contemporary records indicate that the silversmiths Simon Chaudron and Thomas Fletcher also imported French bronze clocks. While it is clear that the Demilts and others acted as importers, the role of the American retailers in the design of the clocks still needs investigating...

For a table comparing the Washington clocks, and a suggested reading list, visit www.AntiquesandFineArt.com
Jonathan Snellenburg, Ph.D., is proprietor of Jonathan Snellenburg Timepieces & Decorative Objects, New York City.

1. Much of what follows in the way of interpretation of the iconography of the clock owes a debt to Gary Wills’s study, Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984).

2 The notion of clocks as memorial sculpture is alien to the British tradition of furniture design to which most eighteenth-century decorative Americana and, in particular, American clocks are related. The British cabinetmaker took the forms of case furniture and adapted them to clocks. High chests or bureau bookcases were not items readily suited to allegory.

3. For example, as both sculptors and bronze founders, the Caffieri family served the French Crown for three generations.

4. Edgar G. Miller, Jr., in his American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1937), compared and contrasted variations of the Washington clock. Pierre Kjellberg published several variant examples of a clock incorporating an allegorical figure of the personification of America. The clock is contemporary with the Washington model and was also sold by Dubuc l’ainé. See Encyclopédie de la Pendule français (Paris, 1997).

5. Under Trumbull’s supervision, the portrait was engraved in London and published by Antonio di Poggi.

6. The Roman historian Livy relates the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (b. ca. 519 b.c.). He is portrayed as a humble farmer who abandoned his plough to twice lead the army of the Roman Republic in victory over invaders, only to surrender his sword and return to his farm rather than accept dictatorial powers. Washington also resigned his commission as commander in chief to return to private life, thus preserving the infant republic from a military dictatorship.

7. Apollo, the personification of the sun, is a common decorative device on neoclassical clocks. In particular, his lyre was the source of numerous clock designs.

8. The imagery of this clock is discussed at length in Donald L. Fennimore, Metalwork in Early America (Winterthur, 1996), pp. 303–04.

9. The wheels of this movement are mounted between circular brass plates of roughly the same diameter as the dial. In this configuration, the mechanism fits neatly behind the dial and simplifies the design of cases. Production of this design began about 1750 and continued, with only slight modification, through the nineteenth century. The multiple examples of the Washington clock were assembled using a method developed during a half-century of collaboration between Parisian clock makers and bronze workers. By the mid-eighteenth century, most French bronze decorative cases were made with a detachable mounting ring or, bezel that surrounded the dial and held the movement. Precise fitting of the movement to the case was unnecessary. The bezel, with movement attached, could be placed on the case with a minimum of shaping and then secured by a few screws. As long as the diameter of the dial remained the same, movements were virtually interchangeable among cases. Surviving clock case designs clearly indicate the diameter of the movement for which the case was intended. By the time the Washington clocks were being made, even this minor fitting was replaced by a simpler mounting, consisting of front and back bezels held together by two long screws through the open interior of the case.

10. Since the late seventeenth century, the majority of Parisian clock makers (horlogers) were situated elsewhere. These craftsmen preferred a triangular royal courtyard at the northwest tip of the Île de la Cité, known as la place Dauphine (renamed place Thionville after the Revolution), and in the streets that bordered it: rue de Harlay, quai de l’Horloge and quai des Orfèvres.

11. Dubuc appears on a tax roll of 1786 that lists all Parisian bronziers. His name is fairly far down on the list, grouped in the fourteenth class among workers paying less than 10 percent of the maximum rate. See Pierre Verlet, Les Bronzes Dorés français du XVIII siécle (Paris: Picard, 1987), pp. 450–53.

12. Surviving English and Swiss watches bearing American names document the practice.

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