The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Nineteenth Century Master
Charles Marville
Photographer of Paris
Christopher Stromee
Photo by Charles Marville . Source:
Charles Marville, "Rue de Constantine" c. 1865

A master of composition, Charles Marville was one of the outstanding photographers of the 19th century. He began his professional life as an engraver for illustrated magazines. Adept at composition and accustomed to working with the chemicals needed for the engraving process, he moved into the field of photography only eleven years after its invention. From his first photographs in 1850, Marville’s ability to harness the play of light across architectural surfaces and urban greenery made him a sought-after photographer of street-scapes. Throughout the 1850s his work was often packaged into popular photographic albums and later in the decade he produced a series known as the “Old Paris” album of buildings and streets threatened by the ongoing modernization of the capital.

Photo by Charles Marville . Source:
Charles Marville, "Banks of the Bieve River" 1862

In the aftermath of the political upheaval of 1848 until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, a program of massive reconstruction transformed Paris into a modern metropolis. Under the direction of the famed Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Emperor’s deputy, wide boulevards were cut through congested working-class districts in the city center to connect its imposing landmarks while dislodging an impoverished population prone to strife. The larger goal of modernization was to promote prosperity: making Paris more livable by enabling efficient transportation along a web of new broad roadways, upgrading sanitation though a network of sewers, creating more parks and squares, and lining the new thoroughfares with handsome apartment buildings. This exhibition focuses on Marville’s most notable work, commissioned during the Second Empire of Emperor Napoleon III, and includes some 100 vintage prints of the streets and avenues of Paris, recording both the old and the new city.

Photo by Charles Marville . Source:
Charles Marville, "Spire of Notre Dame" 1859-60

Spire of Notre Dame, an example of Marville’s crisp masterly touch, is taken from the top of the cathedral looking southwest, the spire of the crossing dramatically set against the Ile St. Louis below and, beyond, the curving wall of stone buildings along the newly carved out Boulevard St. Germain. In another example, Passage St. Benoit, Marville revels in the interlocking pattern of grids: the shapes and cross supports of the windows, the intricate grid of the cobblestones, and the passageway at the rear, opening onto a street and framing another doorway.

Photo by Charles Marville . Source:
Charles Marville, "Urinal" 1876

Some of the exhibited images reveal ancient cityscapes before their destruction as well as areas photographed during demolition, generally viewed from an intact section in the foreground. Many other images were commissioned to show off the new street-furniture of kiosks, columns for posters, fountains, pissoirs, benches, and, most especially, the elegant gas street lamps set against equally elegant street-scapes. It is surprising, for example, to realize that a magnificent street-scape such as Arts et Metiers from 1864 is intended to highlight the ornate freestanding streetlamp in the foreground. Also exhibited are a few examples of Marville’s images of parks, such as those documenting the creation in the late 1850s of the Bois de Boulogne out of the former royal hunting grounds. Apparently by design, these scenes are all virtually devoid of inhabitants because of the long exposure times required. The lone figure sometimes viewed was frequently Marville. In addition to leaving an impressive record of this urban expansion, he turned his official work of documentation into art.

Concurrently with the Marville show in an adjacent gallery is a related exhibition, Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s-1930s. The adjunct show, of only 40 prints, contains some gems including a view of a Paris boulevard in 1843 by Fox Talbot and a street lamp at night from 1934 by Ilse Bing. A quarter of the images are by Eugène Atget who in the early 1900s undertook his own personal documentation of Paris courtyards, byways and storefronts that he believed might eventually fall to the ongoing program of urban regeneration.

Charles Marville
Photographer of Paris

Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Wednesday, January 29 to
Sunday, May 4, 2014
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