Charles Marville exhibit at the National Gallery of Art

The River Seine by Charles Marville

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

Around 1832 Parisian-born Charles-François Bossu (1813–1879) shed his unfortunate last name (bossu means hunchback in French) and adopted the pseudonym Marville. After achieving moderate success as an illustrator of books and magazines, Marville shifted course in 1850 and took up photography, a medium that had been introduced 11 years earlier. His poetic urban views, detailed architectural studies, and picturesque landscapes quickly garnered praise. Although he made photographs throughout France, Germany, and Italy, it was his native city—especially its monuments, churches, bridges, and gardens—that provided the artist with his greatest and most enduring source of inspiration.

By the end of the 1850s, Marville had established a reputation as an accomplished and versatile photographer. From 1862, as official photographer for the city of Paris, he documented aspects of the radical modernization program that had been launched by Emperor Napoleon III and his chief urban planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In this capacity, Marville photographed the city’s oldest quarters, and especially the narrow, winding streets slated for demolition. Even as he recorded the disappearance of Old Paris, Marville turned his camera on the new city that had begun to emerge. Many of his photographs celebrate its glamour and comforts, while other views of the city’s desolate outskirts attest to the unsettling social and physical changes wrought by rapid modernization. Taken as a whole, Marville’s photographs of Paris stand as one of the earliest and most powerful explorations of urban transformation on a grand scale.

By the time of his death, Marville had fallen into relative obscurity, with much of his work stored in municipal or state archives. This exhibition, which marks the bicentennial of Marville’s birth, explores the full trajectory of the artist’s photographic career and brings to light the extraordinary beauty and historical significance of his art.

I went this weekend with my parents to see this exhibit. It is a wonderfully presented exhibition, and proof positive that when the National Gallery tries hard to do a good photography show, they can. The exhibition had special resonance for my father and I as we have just been to Paris, and trod the same streets documented in these photographs.

The exhibition has over 100 prints of Charles Marville’s work on display, ranging from early salt-paper portraits made from calotype negatives (negatives made on paper) to large albumen prints of architectural studies from glass collodion negatives. His architectural works have a significant sociological aspect as they document neighborhoods in transition from medieval warrens of twisted streets and cantering buildings flung up haphazard against one another, populated by the Parisian working class, to the modern, wide boulevarded, sanitized, luxurious Paris created by Baron Haussmann that we think of today.

Among the modernizations he documented were the new gas street lamps being installed, and the public urinals Haussmann designed to improve public sanitation (a major obsession of his). While many of the street lamps were preserved with electrification and can still be seen today, only one of Haussmann’s urnials still stands on Parisian streets.

Marville even includes himself in this transition, as he frequently used himself or an assistant as a stand-in for scale and emotional impact amidst the tumult and construction/destruction he photographed. He even photographed his prospering studio in a location that a scant few years later would also fall victim to Haussmann’s ‘modernizations’.

At the peak of his career he was the official photographer of Paris, but by the time of his death, he had faded into obscurity, his work ending up stored in state and city archives, and not a single obituary was published to mark his passing. He may have died in obscurity, but his work survived and preserved the city in transition, sometimes with his images being the sole record of the city that was.

The exhibit will be traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in January. If you can make it, it will be well worth your while.

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