Determination, Delineation, and Depiction of Time in Art
An Exhibition Catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A fundamental component of the human condition is the struggle to calculate, to comprehend, and to capture time. Across cultures and eras, time has inspired the creation of both functional objects and works of art. People have sought to mark and anticipate its passage, to make it a valued asset in ceremony and industry, and to contain it in moments memorialized forever. Time is at once truly universal, yet inextricably bound to our personal perceptions. This tension between the universal and the personal has manifested itself in some of the most remarkable human inventions throughout history.
This exhibition features 12 objects from the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that determine, delineate, and depict time.
Determining time: Clepsydra, musical automaton, sundial, clock
The oldest object that determines time is a model of an Egyptian clepsydra (water clock) from the 4th century B.C. Though this object may have been used as a votive, it could have functioned as an inflow water clock, determining the time as the water seeps out of a small hole at the base. This particular clepsydra model is decorated with a baboon, which is associated with Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of the moon.
The second object that determines time is a German musical automaton with a functioning clock that is exemplary of the clocks made in Augsburg in the 1600s. This object is extremely rare, since the spinet and organ inside are still fully functional despite its age. It was created by a famous team of instrument and clockmakers, Samuel Bidermann and Veit Langenbucher.
Next is a French portable sundial and calibrator crafted of brass and inlaid with silver in about 1700. This item could have functioned as a sundial to determine time based on the shadows cast by the sun over the silver, bird-shaped style, but was most likely used to calibrate other sundials and clocks.
The final object that determines time is a small, spherical Fabergé egg clock created in about 1899. Though Fabergé fashioned many types of eggs, this small clock is unique in that it was created from a single piece of rose jasper, and it was owned by an American collector.
Delineating time: Months, call to prayer, seasons, motherhood
A Yemeni astrolabe that delineates the months by locating the placement of the moon, sun, and other stars is the oldest object in this category of time in art. It was created in 1291 by a man who went on to become the Rasulid sultan known as al-Ashraf. It is made of hammered and casted brass inlaid with silver and bears the names of the zodiacal signs along with the altitude scales used by mathematical astronomers.
The next object in this category is a metal box made in Syria in the 1400s for the muezzin, or timekeeper, of the Umayyad Mosque. Though this object does not itself delineate time, it represents an important delineation of time for devout Muslims, since the timekeeper would be responsible for announcing the call to prayer five times a day.
A Chinese porcelain vase created during the Qing dynasty (1662-1722) is decorated with flowers representing the four seasons: peony for spring, lotus for summer, chrysanthemum for autumn, and prunus (or plum blossoms) for winter. The delineation of time into seasons of the year is cross-cultural, though many pieces in Chinese art feature scenes from nature associated with the changing seasons.
The most recently created object in this category is a wooden headdress called a D’mba that was made in the 19th or 20th century by the Baga peoples of Africa. Though this connection to delineating time is a bit more abstract, the headdress symbolizes motherhood, which in itself is a delineation of a woman’s life. The D’mba is also masqueraded to commemorate special occasions, like weddings or harvests—both of which are different delineations of time in a person’s life.
Depicting time: A lovers’ embrace, sunset, morning, midnight
The first object that depicts time is a small ink and watercolor painting of Krishna, the Hindu god, with his lover, Radha, at sunset. This painting was created in 1720 and shows the lovers embracing as a bright orange sun sets behind them. Though the sunset is a depiction of time, the relationship between Krishna and Radha has many phases throughout Hindu texts, so their passion for each other in this painting is also a moment in time worth depicting.
Thomas Fearnley’s 1834 Sunset, Sorrento depicts a glowing yellow sun as it fades away over the water. Fearnley’s use of light within this plein-air oil sketch achieves the blinding quality of the sun as it sets over the horizon. In a more interpretive manner, Sunset, Sorrento also depicts the end of Fearnley’s time in Italy.
In 1896 and 1897, Claude Monet spent the earliest hours of each day in a boat he fashioned as a makeshift studio painting the early morning on the Seine. The result was at least 17 paintings in a series depicting the earliest light as the sun rose, the fog creeping over the water, and the lush greenery at the river’s edge. Monet’s study of the morning on the Seine was interrupted by continuous bad weather, though the paintings still have a vibrancy as if the days were not overcast.
Grant Wood’s depiction of the historical ride of Paul Revere in his 1931 painting, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, has a dreamlike quality to it. Wood interprets two facets of time—a real-life event and a certain hour of the day—within this painting, which highlights both his Regionalist style and his playful spirit in creating a work that takes inspiration from an event without simply recreating it.
Through the examination of three facets of time, this exhibition attempts to understand how people across cultures and eras have determined, delineated, and depicted the passing hours and moments in their lives. The 12 objects featured in this catalogue are incredibly diverse, but strung together by the common thread of time.