Neuchâtel : Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
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The flagship Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Esplanade Léopold-Robert (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm, Thurs until 9pm; Fr.7, free on Thurs; SMP), and its star attractions, the astonishing Automates Jaquet-Droz (Jaquet-Droz Mechanical Figurines), is unmissable.

The ground floor is devoted to the historical collections, with absorbing rooms on the history of Neuchâtel aided by an excellent self-start slide show (in English). Upstairs are the rooms devoted to fine art, which have been organized radically differently from most other museums. Instead of displaying works by period, or artist, or genre, the collection is grouped by theme, with the various rooms labelled Nature, Civilization, The Sacred, and so on. In an inspired piece of creative design harking back to earlier centuries, the curators have crammed each room with art from floor to ceiling, with medieval still lifes, contemporary abstractions, Impressionistic indulgences and more all mounted higgledy-piggledy, thereby inducing you to make dynamic connections between utterly distinct works. In each room you can climb podia – each one hung all round with paintings – in order to get a better view of the works hung high on the four walls.

But the most extraordinary exhibits are kept in a room at the rear of the ground floor: the Automates Jaquet-Droz, three mechanical figurines built to the most exacting technical standards by a Neuchâtelois watchmaker in the 1770s and still in perfect working order today. The three – the Draughtsman, the Writer and the Musician – are displayed static behind glass, with a fascinating accompanying slide-show in English by way of explanation, but if you can you should really time your visit for the first Sunday of the month, when they are brought to life for a demonstration (2pm, 3pm & 4pm only). The Draughtsman is a child sitting at a mahogany desk and holding a piece of paper with his left hand; his right hand, holding a pencil, performs extraordinarily complex motions to produce intricate little pictures of a dog, the god Eros in a chariot pulled by a butterfly, or a noble profile of Louis XV. The Writer, a chubby-cheeked little boy, also sits at a mahogany desk, with a goose quill in his right hand and a tiny pot of ink nearby for dipping. He writes in a florid and chunky style, and staggeringly enough, can even be programmed to produce any text of up to forty characters. While he writes, his eyes follow the words across the page. But perhaps the most charming of the three is the Musician, a gracious young girl with slender and dextrous fingers who plays a small organ – a real instrument, not a disguised musical-box. As her fingers strike the keys to produce the notes and her eyes, head and body move subtly from side to side in time, her chest rises and falls delicately in an imitation of rhythmic breathing. Her melodies were composed in the early 1770s by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, a fleeting and unique auditory time capsule from pre-Revolutionary Europe.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90) was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds into a venerable and wealthy local family. After studying theology at university, he returned to Neuchâtel – by then already a centre for clock and watchmaking – and worked to combine his interest in mathematics with the skills of applied mechanics used by the artisans of the watch industry. By the age of 26, Jaquet-Droz had gained a reputation for technical brilliance, and in 1758 he and his father-in-law, a craftsman named Abram Sandoz, travelled to Madrid to show off the skill of Neuchâtelois clockmakers at the Spanish court (Jaquet-Droz’s so-called “Shepherd’s Clock” is still on display in one of the King of Spain’s palace museums).

Jaquet-Droz was by now wealthy enough to retreat from business life and concentrate on problems of applied mathematics, exemplified in his construction of incredibly complex mechanical figurines – the earliest of computers – designed to do particular tasks. He trained his son, Henri-Louis, and a colleague, Jean-Frédéric Leschot, to work with him; together, they produced the Writer, the Draughtsman and the Musician, and presented all three for the first time to the public in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1774. Writers of the day reported that people flocked from all over the country to see such extraordinary works of whimsy and technical skill. The same year, the three craftsmen showed their figurines in drawing rooms and royal palaces all across Europe, from London to Russia and Paris to Madrid, receiving high acclaim wherever they went. Perhaps aware of impending revolutionary violence in France and Switzerland, Jaquet-Droz sold the figurines to a collector in Spain in 1778. After the conflicts, in 1812, they reappeared in Paris and began touring again. Some twenty years later, they became the centrepiece of Martin and Bourquin’s “Museum of Illusions”, which toured Central Europe until the turn of the century. In 1906, helped by a grant from the Swiss federal government, Neuchâtel bought the figurines back, and they have been on display in the town’s museum ever since, in virtually the same condition as when they were first made, almost 230 years ago.

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