Two Vestal Virgins, wearing tunics inspired by the Greek chiton, carry a stretcher on which a porcelain altar supports the sacred flame; a gilt bronze pitcher and offering bowl are placed on either side of the altar. The marble base, supported by four lionesses, features a porcelain plaque with a polychrome Pompeian style decoration of scrolls and grotesques, flanked by two medallions representing Urania, the muse of Astronomy, and Clio, the muse of History. The medallions, made by the Sèvres factory, were inspired by the creations of the English Wedgwood factory which specialized in neoclassical objects made of colored jasper. The Vestal Virgins, young priestesses who devoted their lives to the worship of the hearth goddess Vesta, were responsible for keeping the eternal flame alight. The use of these figures for decorative purposes is indicative of the late eighteenth century’s more severe view of antiquity, when the sacred fire became associated with virtue and the Vestals came to symbolize patriotism. This clock was delivered to Queen Marie Antoinette in 1788 and was placed in the bathroom of her apartment in the Château des Tuileries. The bronze mounts and overall composition were designed by Jean-Démosthène Dugourc, a designer for the Royal Furniture Repository from 1782 onward. The walking Vestal theme was probably inspired by an engraving in Hubert Robert’s Recueil des Griffonis, published in 1771-1773. The sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot probably designed the model, which was then cast in bronze by Pierre-Philippe Thomire; the model remained highly successful until the mid-nineteenth century. To date, we know of sixteen copies, some made with different materials: gilt bronze or porcelain for the plaque; porcelain or bronze for the altar; patinated or gilt bronze for the Vestals. In the same period, the fireplace garniture (decorative set) of porcelain vases was replaced by bronze pieces – usually a clock flanked by candelabra. The vogue for clocks with allegorical subjects resulted in small clock faces; in this case, the face is fitted into the folds of drapery covering the stretcher. This piece could also be seen as an allegory of the passing of time, symbolized by the hurrying Vestals.
Pierre Verlet, Les Bronzes dorés français du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Picard éditeur, 1987, p. 326-327, repr. p. 326.
Christian Baulez, “Les bronziers Gouthière, Thomire et Rémond” in Louis-Simon Boizot, 1743-1809, sculpteur du roi..., Versailles, Musée Lambinet, Paris, Somogy, 2001, pp. 274-301.