Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Louis Mallet (French, active 1790-1824)
ca. 1795-1820
France: Paris
metal; bronze; dial gilt bronze
Overall: 25 1/2 in x 7 3/4 in x 7 3/4 in; 64.77 cm x 19.685 cm x 19.685 cm
Signed on the dial by Mallet of Paris; inscription "ERIPUIT CAELOFULMEN SCEPTRUMQUE TYRANNIS" on base.
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. Patrick D'Orsi
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

Writing from Paris in 1779 to his daughter Sally, Benjamin Franklin observed, “Pictures, busts, and prints (of which copies are spread everywhere) have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.”1Benjamin Franklin and His Circle (New York: Plantin Press, 1936), 40, cat. no. 32. Few Americans of any era have been the subject of more portraits than Benjamin Franklin. From Feke to Greuze, Houdon to Wedgwood, his likeness exists in bronze, terra-cotta, marble, earthenware, and porcelain as well as on canvas. From the earliest portrait, in the 1740s, until his death in 1790, images of Franklin appealed to audiences in France and Britain as well as the United States. 

In 1777 and 1778, while Franklin was serving as one of the United States commissioners to negotiate a treaty of alliance with France, three sculptors—Jean-Jacques Caffieri, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and Jean-Baptiste Nini—undertook portrait busts and medallions of Franklin.2Ibid. See also Charles Coleman Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962) and Louise Todd Ambler, Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: Fogg Art Museum, 1975). The full-length, bronze figure of Franklin on this clock by Louis Mallet is a reduction of a terra-cotta statuette by Francois-Marie Suzanne, a contemporary of Houdon and friend of Jacques-Louis David. Said to be an excellent likeness of Franklin, whom he may have known, Suzanne’s statuette was in fact a posthumous portrait submitted to the annual Paris Salon of 1793.3Examples in terra-cotta are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. See Sellers, Benjamin Franklin, 373–74. A marble version attributed to Suzanne is at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. See Antiques 26, no. 3 (September 1934): 108. 

Louis Mallet is notable for having been appointed clockmaker to the duc d’Orleans, later crowned King Louis Philippe of France. Other clocks by him incorporate busts and figures of George Washington, suggesting that he may have specialized in clocks for export to America.4See Christie’s, New York, sale 1096, May 29, 2002, lot 187 and Sack Collection 1:31, no. 102. Jean-Baptiste Dubuc was another Parisian clockmaker who supplied mantel clocks to the American market. See Stuart P. Feld et al., Neo-Classicism in America: Inspiration and Innovation, 1810–1840 (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 1991), 123. With its bronze dial conforming to the pedestal, the design here emphasizes the figure of Franklin more than many other contemporary clock designs, in which the figures typically form part of larger compositions integrated with the clock case. 

Franklin himself purchased a French bronze clock about 1780 as a present for his daughter Sally (see Acc. No. 75.19).5Benjamin Franklin and His Circle, cat. no. 308. It was around this time that “French clocks” were becoming popular ornaments on mantelpieces of wealthy Americans, particularly those who had taken the Grand Tour or who sought works of art with patriotic rather than sentimental subjects.6See Wendy A. Cooper, Classical Taste in America, 1800–1840 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 45–47.

Thomas S. Michie

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.