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First U.S. exhibition on French photographer Charles Marville opens at National Gallery of Art, Washington
Charles Marville (French, 1816 - 1879), Hôtel de la Marine, c. 1872-1876, albumen print, image: 36.2 x 23.5 cm (14 1/4 x 9 1/4 in.) mount: 60.3 x 45.1 cm (23 3/4 x 17 3/4 in.) Diana and Mallory Walker Fund.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The first exhibition in the United States and the very first scholarly catalogue on the accomplished 19th-century French photographer Charles Marville explores the beauty, variety, and historical poignancy of Marville’s art. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from September 29, 2013, through January 5, 2014, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris includes 99 photographs and three albums that represent the artist’s entire career, from his exquisite city scenes and landscape studies made across Europe in the early 1850s to his compelling photographs of Paris both before and after many of its medieval streets were razed to make way for the broad boulevards, parks, and monumental buildings we have come to associate with the City of Light. The accompanying exhibition catalogue presents recently discovered, groundbreaking scholarship informing Marville’s art and his biography.

“Although his photographs of Paris on the brink of modernity are widely hailed as among the most accomplished ever made of that city, Marville himself has long remained an enigma to art historians,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are thrilled to present this new look at the art and life of Marville and are deeply grateful to lenders, both public and private, for making this landmark show possible.”

Forty-one of the 102 works presented in the exhibition are on loan from the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Conservation and preparation of the loans from the Musée Carnavalet has been undertaken by the Atelier de Restauration et de Conservation des Photographies de la Ville de Paris (ARCP).

Recent Discoveries
Marville has long remained a mystery partly because documents that would shed light on his biography were thought to have disappeared in a fire that consumed Paris’ city hall in 1871. The whereabouts of other documentation was simply unknown. However, new research has helped curator Sarah Kennel and exhibition researcher Daniel Catan reconstruct Marville’s personal and professional biography.

The son of a tailor and laundress, Charles-François Bossu was born in Paris 1813. In a double act of self-invention, he jettisoned his given name (bossu means hunchback in French) around 1832, at the moment he became an artist. He embarked upon a career as an illustrator in the early 1830s but turned to the young discipline of photography in 1850. Although he continued to be known as Marville until his death in 1879, he never formally changed his name, which is the reason many of the legal documents pertaining to his life have gone unnoticed for decades. The exhibition catalogue establishes Marville’s biography, including his parentage and his relationship with a lifelong companion, and uncovers many significant details that illuminate the evolution and circumstances of his career.

The Exhibition and Artist’s Background
A talented and prolific artist lauded for his rigorously composed, beautifully detailed prints, Marville was commissioned in the early 1860s to record the city of Paris in transition. He soon became known as the official photographer of Paris and produced one of the earliest photographic series documenting urbanization. He continues to be recognized as one of the most accomplished photographers in the history of the medium.

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris offers an overview of the artist’s photographic career, beginning with a compelling series of intimate self-portraits and portraits of friends and colleagues that 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 and Germany, using the paper negative process with great skill to create beautiful landscapes, cityscapes, studies of sculpture, and striking architectural photographs. Many of these works were included in albums produced by the pioneering publisher Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard. The quantity and quality of the photographs used by the publisher serve as both a testament to Marville’s skill and an indication that his training as an illustrator prepared him exceptionally well for this new pictorial enterprise of photographic documentation.

In the mid-1850s, Marville adopted the collodion negative process and undertook a series of sky and cloud studies, made from the rooftop of his Parisian studio. More rapid and sensitive than the paper negative process, the collodion negative process enabled the photographer to capture delicate, luminous cloud formations on the city’s horizon and made him one of the first artists successfully to photograph clouds.

At the same time, Marville expanded his practice by honing in on two lucrative areas: reproductions of works of art 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.

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 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) in the early 1860s, Marville made more than 425 photographs 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 album, the photographs are captivating for their seamless integration of artistic sensibility and intense devotion to maximum visual clarity. In many cases they serve as the only visual record of sites that have long since vanished.

The exhibition closes with an exploration of the emergence of modern Paris through Marville’s photographs. Even before completing the Old Paris series, Marville began to photograph the city 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. Marville also explored the city’s edges, where desolate stretches of half-finished construction suggest the physical displacements and psychic costs of modernization. Sharp-edged, beautifully detailed, and brilliantly composed, Marville’s photographs of the French capital as at once glamorous and alienating do not simply document change but in their very form shape the visual rhetoric of modern Paris.

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