British photographic history

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Charles Marville, 1813–1879

Event Details

Charles Marville, 1813–1879

Time: October 1, 2012 to January 6, 2013
Location: National Gallery of Art
Street: 4th and Constitution Avenue NW
City/Town: Washington, DC 20565
Website or Map:
Phone: (202) 737-4215
Event Type: exhibition
Organized By: National Gallery of Art
Latest Activity: Dec 6, 2010

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Event Description

Charles Marville, 1813–1879 is divided into six sections, beginning with a compelling series of intimate self-portraits and portraits of family, friends, and colleagues, many made in his studio on the rue St. Dominique in the early 1850s. It was then that Marville abandoned his 17-year tenure as an illustrator of journals and books in order to take up photography. These portraits, many of which have not been identified until now, provide a fascinating window into Marville's personal life and professional ties, and serve as an introduction to the exhibition.

Starting in 1850, Marville traveled throughout France, Italy, and Germany, using the paper negative process with great skill to create beautiful landscapes and striking architectural photographs. Many of these works were included in albums produced by the pioneering publisher Louis-Desiré Blanquart-Evrard. The quantity and quality of the photographs used by the publisher serve as both a testament to Marville's skill and as an indication that his training as an illustrator prepared him exceptionally well for this new pictorial enterprise of artistic documentation.

Marville was a savvy practitioner whose range of skills was greatly transformed by the adoption of the collodion negative process in the mid 1850s. Around 1855, Marville undertook a series of delicate cloud studies, made from the rooftop of his Parisian studio using the new process. More rapid and sensitive than the paper negative process, the collodion negative enabled the photographer to capture delicate, luminous cloud formations on the city's horizon—an achievement that was noted by several critics at the 1862 Universal Exhibition in London.

At the same time that he was exploring new photographic technologies, Marville expanded his practice by honing in on two lucrative areas: reproductions of artworks and architectural photographs. He excelled at both and assumed the title and related privileges of photographer to the Louvre while he also documented building and renovation projects in Paris and the provinces for prominent French architects, including Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Felix Duban.

In 1858, Marville was commissioned by the city of Paris to photograph the newly refurbished Bois de Boulogne, a royal park on the edge of Paris that had been transformed under the emperor Napoleon III into a site of bourgeois leisure and pleasure. Arguably his first important body of work that was conceived of and executed as a systematic series, the Bois de Boulogne series would influence his best-known work, the Old Paris photographs.

Commissioned by Paris' agency on historic works (under the aegis of urban planner Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann), Marville made approximately 425 photographs in the mid-1860s of the narrow streets and crumbling buildings of the premodern city at the very moment they were threatened by demolition. Known as the Old Paris series, the photographs are captivating for their formality and their historical poignancy. In many cases they serve as the only visual record of sites that have long since vanished.

The final section of the exhibition offers an overview of the emergence of modern Paris through Marville's photographs. Even before completing the Old Paris series, Marville was commissioned by the city to record the Paris that was coming into being, from massive construction projects, renovated churches, and broad boulevards to a host of modern conveniences, such as the elegant new gas lamps and the poetically named vespasiennes (public urinals) that cemented Paris' reputation in the 1860s as the most modern city in the world. Sharp-edged, beautifully detailed, and brilliantly composed, Marville's photographs of the new city do not simply document change but—in their very form—shape the visual rhetoric of modern Paris.

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