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Metropolitan Museum of Art Announces Napoleon III and Paris Exhibition

NEW YORK, NY.- During the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, the narrow streets and medieval buildings of Paris gave way to the broad boulevards and grand public works that still define the urban landscape of the French capital. Napoleon III and Paris, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 9 through September 7, 2009, will illuminate the quickly changing cityscape during the Second French Empire through a presentation of approximately 30 photographs and albums and 10 works in other media, all drawn from the permanent collection. Spanning the period from 1848 to 1871—a "golden age" in French photography—the installation will begin with a photographic introduction to Napoleon III and his family, then trace the radical transformation of the city under the emperor and his master urban planner Baron Haussmann, and conclude with depictions of the ruins of Paris in the aftermath of the Commune. Many of the works in the installation are by the preeminent photographers of the period, including Gustave Le Gray, Charles Marville, Edouard Baldus, Delmaet and Durandelle, Alphonse Liebert, and Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg.

"Napoleon III and Paris features a significant number of photographs drawn from the Gilman Collection, which is rich in material associated with the French Imperial family," noted Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs. "This exhibition is one more way of celebrating the treasures of that major acquisition made in 2005."

Nephew of Napoleon I, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president of the French Second Republic after the Revolution of 1848 and the abdication of King Louis-Philippe. In 1851, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup d'état and seized dictatorial powers; one year later, he dissolved the Republic and established the Second Empire, taking the title Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III's ascension to power coincided with a dramatic flourishing of photography in France—the rise of paper photography over daguerreotypy, the development of new processes including glass negatives, and the establishment of photographic societies, publications, and annual salons. Photographers enjoyed direct encouragement from the emperor and his government in the form of commissions to record historic architecture and new construction, appointments as "official photographer" for the City of Paris or for specific public works, and purchases of photographs for imperial residences and municipal libraries.

The Imperial Family
The exhibition begins with an introduction to the Imperial family, including portraits of Louis-Napoleon in 1852 and Empress Eugénie in 1855 by Gustave Le Gray—the central figure in French photography of the 1850s—and a touching and unique portrait of the empress and her six-year-old son by Benjamin Delessert from 1862.

Old Paris
Under Napoleon III and his prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, Paris took the shape that is so familiar to us today. The grands boulevards, the limestone apartment buildings, and the public parks that form our image of Paris are largely the result of Napoleon III's rebuilding of the capital in the 1850s and 1860s. The profound transformation of the landscape of Paris provided subject matter for many of the period's greatest photographers including Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Edouard Baldus, Charles Nègre, and Charles Marville. Key among them was Marville, official photographer to the City of Paris, who was commissioned to record the older areas of the capital that were slated for demolition in order to make way for axial boulevards and urban development under Haussmann's plan. These photographs of a Paris that has long since disappeared will be supplemented by contemporaneous etchings by Charles Meryon, Maxime Lalanne, and others.

Napoleon III's Modern Paris
Although designed in part to ease military movement through the city and to prevent revolutionaries from barricading narrow streets, Napoleon III's urban plan was also geared toward making Paris a safer and more modern city. The desire of a ruler to leave his mark on the city played a role as well. The grandest of Napoleon III's building projects was the "New Louvre," designed to connect the Louvre and Tuileries Palaces. Edouard Baldus, the official photographer for the project, made thousands of photographs on site, ranging from documentation of every piece of ornamentation to large-format photographs of the completed pavilions. Assembled into lavish albums, Baldus's photographs of the project were presented by the emperor to the reigning sovereigns of Europe. This section of the installation also includes Delmaet and Durandelle's photographs of the Paris Opera (1858–1875), six volumes of which are in the Museum's collection; views of the 1855 and 1867 universal expositions; and other photographs of Paris.

The Ruins of Paris
The Second Empire collapsed in 1870, after suffering a swift defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. From March to May 1871 the Paris Commune, a newly established left-wing local government, battled National forces for control of the capital. A rare photograph by Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg in the exhibition shows a spy's-eye view of barricades erected in the streets of Paris during the Commune. However, the majority of the photographs in this section—by Alphonse Liebert, Charles Soulier, Franck, and others—depict the ruins of Paris in the months after the defeat of the Commune. Along with the destruction wrought by German forces in the environs of Paris, the capital itself suffered from self-inflicted wounds as Communards set fire to many government buildings and, in an act of great symbolism, pulled down the Vendôme Column with its crowning statue of the first Emperor Napoleon.

The two decades of Napoleon III's reign was a time in which artists of the first rank took up a fully mature medium—one that was neither still experimental nor yet industrialized—and made ambitious pictures for patrons at the highest level of society. Many of these photographers found their most compelling subject matter literally at their doorstep in the dramatic transformation of Paris.

Napoleon III and Paris is organized by Malcolm Daniel.

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