The Streets of Paris: Charles Marville’s photographs of a city transformed

“Top of the Rue de Champlain, View to the Right,” c. 1877-78

Whether you have lived in Paris or just visited, read about Papa and Scott and Zelda, Josephine Baker clad only in bananas or Gertrude Stein armed only with words, created your image by seeing Audrey Hepburn (sigh) in “Funny Face” and “Charade” or perhaps more recently dreamed with Woody Allen of “Midnight in Paris,” the capital of romance universally entrances. Rome is eternal. London is grand. But Paris is like a first love, real or imagined—and never forgotten.

Still, sober reflection reminds us that it is a city of men and women, with a history, and “always Paris” in our reveries alone. A recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris,” bracingly brings the point home. (The show will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, June 15 to Sept. 14.) Using 100 photographs, the show documents the extraordinary transformation Paris underwent during the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-70), when the emperor commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to build an entirely new system of broad boulevards, major public buildings and parks in the center of the city. It was to be a cleaner city, with more light and air—and with fewer small streets that abetted barricades and insurrections. Happily there was a young Parisian who was just the man to document the process through the new medium of photography, introduced only in 1839. He would prove to be an acute witness—and a first-rate artist as well.

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Born in 1813 to a tailor and a laundress of modest circumstances, Charles-François Bossu changed his name when he was about 19 to Charles Marville (bossu, in French, means “hunchback”). In his early career he worked, with some success, as an illustrator of books and magazines. Then in 1850 he took up photography, traveling through France, Italy and Germany, and became adept at capturing city scenes, architecture and landscape. The dappled light of his charming “Man Reclining Beneath a Chestnut Tree” (c. 1853) reveals both his increasing technical expertise and romantic spirit.

Paris, though, would be the true inspiration for his life’s work. A calm reverence for the city is evident in images like that of the sculptor Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume’s “Statue of Clovis” at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde (1856). In the mid-1850s Marville also achieved remarkable success with delicate sky and cloud studies.

In 1858, when Napoleon III ordered the transformation of the Bois de Boulogne from a royal hunting ground to a great public park, Marville was commissioned to photograph the project. He turned from his earlier use of the paper negative process to the new technique of glass plate coated with collodion and captured with striking clarity the cascades and ponds, bridges and invented architecture of the Parisian elite’s new fantasy playground. His view of the Longchamp Windmill (1858-60), for example, typically suggests a 19th-century pastiche of a rustic scene by Rembrandt, but the windmill is actually the restored remnant of the 13th-century Abbey of Longchamp. As the next decade dawned, the artist could present himself in a “Self-Portrait” of 1861 with a proud new dignity.

At the heart of the exhibition are some 26 photographs from Marville’s “Old Paris” album, which in over 425 views documented Haussmann’s sweeping reconstruction of the city. Old neighborhoods, many with buildings dating to the Middle Ages, were razed and pierced by broad boulevards that opened the city to greater circulation and commerce. (That they also facilitated the movement of troops to quell uprisings was a purpose seldom recognized in the Impressionists’ celebrations of dappled and bustling boulevard scenes.)

Some of the photographs are artfully angled frontal views, like the representation of the seven-centuries-old central food market, Les Halles, before it was replaced by iron-and-glass pavilions, or the artist’s studio on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques (in which he can be seen with his lifelong companion, Jeanne-Louise Leuba). But most of them are variations on a centered composition opening into the distance through an archway, down a river, approaching a major monument, into the passages of interior shopping arcades or even toward a dead end (as in the splendid “Impasse de la Bouteille From the Rue Montorgueil” of 1865–68). The harmony evoked by the camera placement renders the impending disappearance of the scene all the more poignant.

The emerging Paris was furnished, according to the designs of the architect Gabriel Davioud, with benches, cylindrical kiosks known as Morris columns and handsome grilles on fountains and urinals (called pissoirs or vespasiennes after the Roman emperor Vespasian and a first shock for tourists, especially the English). Most important of all was the installation of thousands of gas lamps that not only embellished the city but made it safe at night. Marville recorded much of this “street furniture” and seemed to delight especially in the variety of lampposts, of which, typically, he took a series of more than 90 shots.

And then there was the Paris Opéra, designed by Charles Garnier and the most lavish of Haussmann’s projects. Begun in 1861, construction halted after the end of the Second Empire in 1870 but started again in preparation for the 1878 World’s Fair. Marville’s commissioned studies of the project, beginning in late 1876, reveal how much had to be torn down, in particular to construct the later famous Avenue de l’Opéra. They resemble nothing so much as images of a war-ravaged city. One of the views, loaned by the Musée Carnavalet (which supplied two-fifths of the material in the exhibition), unusually and tellingly shows a large number of citizens observing the construction site from nearby rooftops. (Unusual, because it was not generally Marville’s custom to populate his images.)

Arguably the most haunting image in the show is “Top of the Rue Champlain” (1877-78). Not an area destined for demolition but a shantytown of the committed-left, working poor who had moved to the 20th Arrondissement on the eastern edge of the city in the 1860s and 1870s, the scene is again centrally bisected, here by the Rue Champlain. The view toward the distant core of Paris is observed by a young man seated on a slight rise in the foreground, creating a melancholy mood of deeply disturbing disenfranchisement. It recalls, as the catalogue points out, what an author wrote in 1870, that Paris was in fact two cities, “quite different and hostile; the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged by the city of misery.”

At the time of his death in 1879, Marville was largely neglected. This exhibition honoring the bicentennial of his birth restores his achievement to the fame it deserves, as a photographer using his medium in its very infancy and as an artist. His objective, seemingly artless images are in fact ardently detailed and searching, revealing as much as they record, apparently documentary but imbued as well with creative sympathy and, yes, discreet social criticism. Anyone seeing this show is likely to think twice about the composition of his or her next “selfie.”

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