This clock does not merely depict a portly man enjoying a good laugh. The soft-paste porcelain figure portrays Pu-Tai Ho Shang, a Chinese folklore deity. “Pu-Tai” means cloth sack, and the figure is usually shown with one; here, the sack supports the seated figure’s left arm. The jolly but poor deity uses the small sack to carry his few possessions. Popular with children, Put-Tai is a messenger of the Buddha and a representation of contentment, despite having very little in the world.
Buddhism was founded on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, a prince born in what is now southern Nepal, sometime between the mid-6th and mid-4th centuries BCE. Siddhartha abandoned his family to explore religions and philosophies in search of the key to human happiness. He is considered a sage who taught a path to enlightenment. Buddhism subsequently spread throughout much of central and southeast Asia, China and Japan. In some Buddhist traditions, Pu Tai is considered an enlightened bodhisattva. In others, he is more closely identified with the Maitreya, the future Buddha. In folklore, he is admired for his jovial attitude and wisdom of contentment.
This clock was created by Paris-based clockmaker, Claude du Grand Mesnil, a master craftsman who designed and made intricate, sometimes elaborate mechanical clocks by hand. The timepiece, mounted on an ornate, richly curved Rococo style gilt bronze base, incorporates a bright white-glazed ceramic figure of Pu-Tai Ho Shang produced by the Mennecy-Villeroy porcelain factory in France. Established by François Barbin with the help of patron Louis-Francois-Anne de Neufville, duc de Villeroy, the factory was first housed in the park of the chateau de Villeroy, and eventually moved to the nearby town of Mennecy. The factory became known for its tablewares and small figures.
While Buddhism itself did not filter into the Western world largely until the 19th century, there was clearly a fascination with Asian culture, art, and decorative forms and motifs throughout Europe as exploration and commerce with China and other Asian countries flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. French and other European craftsmen created magnificent pieces such as this clock, showing how the merging of two cultures and aesthetics could result in instruments that not only served a functional purpose, but an ornamental one as well.
Erin Benedictson was an Alberta-Smithsonian intern in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum