When I first glanced at this 18thc. genre painting, Midday (it's part of a series of four pictures showing the times of the day), I did a double take. Were these ladies looking down at a cell phone? Of course they weren't - the lady in blue is holding a gold pocket watch, below, not an iPhone, whose invention was still some 250 years in the future.
But the inclusion of that pocket watch made me think. Although pocket watches had first come into use in the 16thc., in 1739, when this picture was painted, they remained a luxury item that only the affluent would have possessed. It was a status piece, often beautifully crafted of precious metals and enhanced with jewels, engraving, and enamel, and comparable to expensive designer watches today.
Yet a watch wasn't just a piece of jewelry. A pocket watch represented the newest technology of the time, a tangible representation of the Age of Enlightenment in precise clockwork. The miniaturization of a clock that could be held conveniently in your hand and carried in a pocket was still a marvel. For the first time in history, people were able to measure their days and nights by hours and minutes instead of the movements of the sun and the moon in the sky overhead
Watches marked not only the passage of time, but also introduced the concept of punctuality, which previously had been fluid at best. In an earlier era, the four people in this painting would have known it was noon because the sun was at its zenith, and a nearby church bell might be tolling the hour. Now, in 1739, they had the watch to tell them, its face proudly displayed so that all could read it.
Which, really, is not so very different from a group of young people today, consulting the glowing little screen in their hand that tells them the time, the weather, the nearest, best place for pizza....
Above: Detail, The Four Times of Day: Midday by Nicolas Lancret, c. 1739-41, The National Gallery, UK.