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First major U.S. exhibition of French photographer Charles Marville travels to Houston
Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, 1866, albumen print from collodion wet plate negative, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1986.
HOUSTON, TX.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is presenting Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the 19th-century French artist Charles Marville. The exhibition explores the beauty, variety and historical poignancy of his art through nearly 100 photographs that span his entire career. At the heart of the show are compelling views of Paris both before and after many of its historic neighborhoods were razed to make way for broad boulevards, monumental buildings and manicured parks. The accompanying publication is the first scholarly catalogue about Marville and presents recently discovered, groundbreaking scholarship on his art and life.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from June 15 to September 14, 2014.

“This show allows us to see Paris through the eyes of one of photography’s early masters, to witness the ‘City of Light’ taking shape—and of course we feel pangs of nostalgia for what would soon be lost,” said Gary Tinterow, Museum director. “This groundbreaking exhibition was met with praise at the National Gallery in D.C. and is highly anticipated in New York. We’re excited and honored to bring these photographic treasures to Houston this summer.”

The presentation in Houston is organized by Malcolm Daniel, recently appointed Curator in Charge of the Department of Photography. “Marville’s work has long been admired by photography aficionados,” remarked Daniel, “but this exhibition affords the broad public its first chance to see the full extent of this artist’s work through prints carefully selected for their perfectly calibrated compositions, exquisite technique and exceptional state of preservation. Most appealingly, many of Marville’s photographs show Paris at the very moment of its transformation from a city of narrow streets and medieval buildings into the most modern of European capitals.”

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’s city hall in 1871. The whereabouts of other documentation was simply unknown. However, new research has helped National Gallery of Art 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 in 1813. In a double act of self-invention, he jettisoned his given name (bossu means hunchback in French), assuming the name Marville around 1832, and became an artist. He embarked on 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
Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris reveals an artist of broader talent than previously recognized, beginning with a compelling series of intimate self-portraits and portraits of friends and colleagues that provide a fascinating glimpse into Marville’s personal life and professional ties. Featured works from his early career, beginning in 1850, also include landscapes, cityscapes, studies of sculpture and striking architectural photographs made in Paris, across France and in Germany along the Rhine. In Houston, the selection of early works will include a charmingly picturesque view of the half-timbered home of Francois I in Abbeville and a graphically powerful image of Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, both from the Museum’s Manfred Heiting Collection.

Among the most poetic works in the exhibition are a series of cloud studies that Marville made in the mid-1850s from the rooftop of his Paris studio. Using collodion-on-glass negatives, a more rapid and sensitive process than the paper negatives he had earlier used, the artist captured delicate, luminous cloud formations on the city’s horizon.

Marville’s first patronage from the City of Paris came in 1858, a commission 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. The park’s highly orchestrated mix of natural and man-made is seen in The Emperor’s Kiosk and other views. Arguably his first important body of work conceived and executed as a systematic series, the Bois de Boulogne is represented in the exhibition by nine large prints and two albums on loan from France’s Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library).

At the heart of the exhibition are the images for which Marville has been most celebrated: rigorously composed, beautifully detailed prints that he made beginning in the early 1860s as “official photographer” for the City of Paris. Known as the Old Paris album, the 425 photographs that Marville made for Paris’s agency of historic works (under the aegis of urban planner Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann) document the narrow streets and crumbling buildings of the pre-modern Paris and, in many cases, serve as the only visual record of sites that have long since vanished. Often working just one step ahead of the wrecking ball, Marville recorded not only buildings slated for destruction, but also a disappearing way of life as age-old working-class neighborhoods were replaced with broad boulevards and new apartment buildings for a new rising middle class. In a view of the Passage Saint-Benoît, for instance, an attentive viewer finds an intriguing display of mismatched glassware in a café window, a charming hand-painted sign literally pointing to a seller of wood and charcoal, the decorative over-door panel of an already vacated wine store and other time-worn details of life in Paris. Other pictures include glistening cobblestones, the traces of torn-down buildings left on neighboring walls and advertising for such new-fangled items as a folding umbrella and photography itself.

The exhibition concludes 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’s 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 present the French capital as at once glamorous and alienating.

By the time of his death, Marville had fallen into relative obscurity, with much of his work stored in municipal or state archives. This exhibition, which marks the bicentennial of Marville’s birth, explores the full trajectory of the artist’s photographic career and brings to light the extraordinary beauty and historical significance of his art.





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