Charles Marville and His View of Paris

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The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, June 15 through September 14, 2014. The retrospective looks at the 19th century French photographer, Charles Marville’s work on urban Paris. With more than 100 photographs, the exhibition will study the historical poignancy and beauty of Marville’s art photographs that span his entire career.

In the mid-1850s, Paris was undergoing an ambitious renewal. The French emperor, Napoleon III, ordered its reconstruction. Old, narrow cobbled streets were to be demolished and replaced with wide boulevards. Medieval buildings were to be destroyed to make way for modern structures. Thousands of gas lamps were to be placed along the boulevards and illuminate the city. As one of the most talented 19th century photographers, the Parisian, Charles Melville was given the task to record those transformations.

Charles-Francois Bossu was born in 1813, and in 1832 assumed the pseudonym, Marville as his surname that he embraced for the rest of his life. Marville began his career as a book and magazine illustrator and took up photography in 1850, a medium that had only been introduced 11 years earlier.

Marville became the official photographer for Paris, documenting phases of the radical modernization platform appointed by Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the chief urban planner.

For the Parisian’s first commission, he photographed the newly revamped Bois de Boulogne, a royal park set on the western edge of Paris. It had been transformed under the emperor into a site intended for bourgeois society for their leisure and pleasure, carriages and crinolines.

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In the early days, Marville worked with the paper negative process. His images of Le Bois featured a more muted, almost dreamy vista than his later works when he used glass negatives. Whether he employed the paper or glass process, Marville grasped that his work’s objective was to record the transformation of Paris for the city’s archives. Therefore, his photographs varied in technique and approach, as seen in the exhibit, compared to the photographer’s peers.

The expressive cityscapes, striking landscapes and architectural photographs gained him admiration early on, establishing Marville as an accomplished and versatile photographer.  Possibly his most renowned photographs, are the carefully composed images comprised in the “Old Paris” album, which is made up of 425 photographs for Paris’s “agency of historic works.”

These early photographs recorded not only the buildings scheduled for demolition, but captured the daily life that would soon be forgotten as time-worn neighborhoods were replaced with a new rising middle class. The images also revealed Paris’s bleak outskirts in contrasted to the swift social and physical transformations shaped by the emperor’s plan for modernization.

As a complete collection, Marville’s Paris photographs remain one of the most formidable studies of “urban transformation on a grand scale.” His images are sharp-edged, stunningly detailed and skillfully composed. They present Paris as simultaneously alluring and alienating. The retrospective that commemorates the bicentennial of Charles Marville’s birth shows the full course of the photographer’s career and reveals the extraordinary beauty and historical significance of his work, and Paris’s transformation.

By: Dawn Levesque

Sources:

Houston News

Slate

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

The Western Society for French History

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