New exhibition sheds light on enigmatic photographer of Paris


A picture of street in Paris by Charles Marville. — Historians of photography have long appreciated Charles Marville’s pictures of Paris as it transformed into 19th century modernity, but very little was known about the man himself. Now, a landmark exhibition at the U.S. National Gallery of Art puts his life and career in context, with researchers discovering that we didn’t even know his real name.
This is the man long known to history as Charles Marville, photographer of Paris. In this new exhibition, some of his most well-known works are on display, documenting the tumbledown neighbourhoods of the French capital that were to be demolished in Baron Haussmann’s modernisation. But the exhibition’s researchers discovered Charles Marville wasn’t all he seemed.
“He was born Charles-Francois Bossu, and he changed his name when he was 18 because ‘Bossu’ means hunchback in French, and it was a very difficult name for him to carry throughout life,” said Sarah Kennel, curator of U.S. National Gallery of Art.
Finding this out leads to more revelations: “When we discovered his actual name, we learned a lot more about his family. He was born in 1813 in Paris to a modest Parisian family – his father was a tailor, his mother was a laundress – and he became an artist. He became an illustrator for the popular press for illustrated magazines and books,” Kennel said.
It was only in the 1850s that Marville switched to photography, but he took to it instantly. The early photographs here show him grappling with the challenges of the emerging art form such as in these skyscapes in tricky light conditions.
As his career developed, so did photography itself. Soon he was producing large, clear prints, and the city commissioned him to record the creative destruction which gave us Paris as it largely still is today. This was the height of his career. But his luck, like that of the city itself, was to change with the Franco-Prussian war.
“Marville’s fortunes were always tied to the fortunes of the Second Empire,” Kennel said. “In 1870 and 1871 you see the collapse of the Second Empire so the political circumstances had changed, Marville’s own abilities to receive commissions and to work for the government had changed, and the world of photography had changed.”
The fall of Napoleon III saw Marville’s decline, and on his death, not a single newspaper carried an obituary. But despite this slide into relative obscurity, his photographs serve as a lasting monument for his talent.
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