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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Old Paris for Christmas at the National Gallery of Art

Charles Marville, Salle des Cariatides, au Musée du Louvre (Gallery of the Caryatids, Musée du Louvre), 1851, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund

Is anyone not in love with Paris?  Yesterday?  Today or tomorrow?

You don't want to miss the city of love and light when it was turning over in the middle of the 19th century in a period of urban revolution, a city in transformation, captured in 99 photographs and three albums now on view at the National Gallery of Art.

It's all the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879) in the first Marville show in the U.S., accompanied by "the first scholarly catalogue" about the official photographer of Paris who also acted as photographer to the Louvre.  A man who died in relative obscurity, "one of the most accomplished and prolific photographers in the history of the medium," with nary an obituary but whose work is suddenly coming to light, thanks to the work of Sarah Kennel, the National Gallery's associate curator of photographs who curated the show, independent researcher Daniel Catan, and others.

Charles Marville, Percement de l'avenue de l'Opera (Construction of the avenue de l'Opera), Dec. 1876, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, copyright, Musee Carnavale/Roger-Viollet
Marville photographed not only cityscapes but scenes in France, Italy, and Germany, the lakes surrounding Paris, countrysides, buildings, bridges, and sculptures which convey in their golden sepia tones, an aura of peace.

Charles Marville, Man Reclining Beneath a Chestnut Tree, c. 1853, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1946. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The man in this photo is believed to be Marville.

Before they were razed to make way for the "new" Paris under the direction of Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III's chief urban planner, crumbling structures and narrow, long streets filled the city.* On commission by the government, Marville took 425 pictures "before" and "after."  

For the most part, people are noticeably absent from the photographs whose long exposures demanded the subjects stand still three to fifteen seconds. The scenes are often bleak and lifeless, eerily quiescent, with no evidence of animal, person, or litter. It's as if a movie studio contracted with the city to use the streets for filming to ensure no movements of any living thing occurred.

The catalogue suggests a comparison to a catastrophe hitting the city, and in some ways it did with the demolition of so many structures now deemed more valuable in their absence than their presence, much like some structures and other entities we see today. (Permits for the teardown of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at the corner of 16th and I, N.W., Washington, D.C. were issued Oct. 13, 2013.)

Marville's pictures stand as monuments to the cemetery of buildings, and it is agonizing to see the remains of Hotel de Ville, the city hall, a building started in 1532 and destroyed by the 1871 fire of the Paris Commune (which followed the Second Empire and preceded the Third Republic).

Stored in the building were Marville's historic photographs, documents, paintings, sculpture, and all the city's archives which perished.

Fascinating comparisons of the Fontaine des Innocents from the year after the memorial was completed in 1850, to 1858, 1868, and 1871 show the changes to the square made into a park with splendor replaced by a confined, "tamed fountain."

Charles Marville, Fontaine des Innocents, 1858, the AIA/AAF Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Marville was not his real surname. That was Bossu which, in French, means hunchback. Bullying is not a contemporary worldwide phenomenon, sadly, but Marville, a diminutive man, 5 feet, 2 inches, was bullied, too, and desired to change his image. When he was 18, he informally adopted "Marville," which the catalogue notes, is close to the French "ma ville" (my city).Was it coincidence that his name change occurred around the same time as the publication of Victor Hugo's Le Bossu de Notre-Dame, the catalogue asks.

Marville was born in Paris where he grew up in modest, but not impoverished, surroundings.His father was a tailor, and his mother, a laundress.

Charles Marville, Haut de la rue Champlain (vue prise a droit) (Top of the rue Champlain) (View to the Right) (20th arrondissement), 1877-1878, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, copyright, Charles Marville/Musee Carnavale/Roger-Viollet

The Musee Carnavalet, Paris, loaned the National Gallery almost half the works in the show which cover Marville's career.

Charles Marville, South Portal, Chartres Cathedral, 1854, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Jennifer and Joseph Duke Gift and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschell, 2000. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For romantics and those Parisian lovers on your gift list, a handsome 266-paged color catalogue is available in the National Gallery shops.

The show's next stops are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which helped the National Gallery of Art organize the show, from January 27 -May 4, 2014, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, June 13-September 14, 2014.

The people of the United States are grateful to Leonard and Elaine Silverstein for helping make the exhibition possible.

In honor of the exhibition which celebrates the bicentennial of the artist's birth, Chef Michel Richard of Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery's Executive Chef Pierre Cummings have designed a special menu with French dishes, wines, and beer for the Gallery's Garden Café Francais in the West Building.


George Marville, Urinoir (systeme Jennings) plateau de l'Ambigu (Urinal, Jennings System, plateau de l'Ambigu, 1876. Musee Carnavalet, Paris, copyright, Musee Carnavale/Roger-Viollet
 Marville talks:

December 14, 15, 17, 18,and 20 beginning at 12 p.m., the West Building Rotunda with Eric Denker. Duration: 50 minutes.

What: Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

When: Now through January 5, 2014, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m.- 6 p.m., Sunday.

Where: Ground Floor, the West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall. The closest Gallery entrance to the Marville show is on Seventh Street, N.W.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215

Palace Resorts Package Deals: Save $200 on select flight + hotel vacation packages with promo code MEXICO200.

*In the December 8, 2013 issue of the Washington Post, book editor Jonathan Yardley named Paris Reborn:Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland, one of the best books of 2013.






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