The origin and success of the tableau à surprise
What is a tableau à surprise?
It is a type of combine painting, bringing together painting and mechanics. More precisely, it is generally a village scene with a clock tower featuring a real clock dial.
The forerunner of these curiosities could well be a 15th century painting in the catalogue of Anne de Bretagne, labelled “Hercule paint les sourcilzs et les yeux branlans” [Hercules paints the burning eyebrows and eyes].
A period of passionate interest in the sciences and strange objects, the 18th century produced several successful examples, one of which is conserved in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The craze took hold in the mid-19th century before dying out around 1900. The clock-tower paintings were widely dispersed by master Swiss clockmakers who wanted to boost their sales. The fashion reached France before moving to Austria.
Some of the movements are quite complex, with some sounding the Angelus, echos, or chimes in the distance. Some music boxes on the clock-tower paintings can play up to eight tunes.