Charles Marville

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

After hearing about the Charles Marville exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, we were excited to go view the black and white French photography. While the collection features works from throughout Marville’s career, the curator focused on his documentation of the Haussmannization of Paris- the implementation of Baron Haussmann’s architectural and infrastructural plans to modernize the city-  from the 1850s into the early 1870s. But by walking through the rooms of photos, we found that Marville did much more than simply document the city’s modern transformation. While Haussmannization improved the city’s transportation, layout, and sanitation, it displaced much of the “Old Paris,” leaving poor city dwellers without homes and with overall feelings of disappointment and frustration. Through his work, Marville seems to pay homage to the older parts of the city while embracing the new version of Paris that we know today.

One of the hallmarks of Marville’s artistry is his innovative use of light. He beautifully renders this effect in his photograph, Sky Study, in which he makes the bright sky and delicate overhanging clouds his subject, providing the viewer with a reference point in the spire atop a domed building in the background. Within this work, where he captures the nuances of natural light, he conveys the message that while Paris may be a changing city, its people still live under the same sun and marvel at the same clouds. Although Parisian officials ordered the construction of a “new Paris,”  they could not demolish the city’s distinctive history and trademark spirit.

Sky Study can be viewed at –

While he communicates such sentiments in many of his works, Marville equally explores the cultural mores of the transforming city. As a representation of the social stratification, he photographed a series of lampposts placed on street corners throughout Paris. The lampposts were one of the later products of Haussmannization, intended to light the city for purposes of safety and comfort. What is interesting about the series is that at first glance, each lamp looks alike, but upon a closer look, each one has its own unique characteristics. We found out that the more ornate lampposts were placed in upscale neighborhoods and areas, while the plainer ones resided in the poorer neighborhoods. So, Marville’s documentation of the lampposts is actually symbolic of a microcosm of the widening gap between the social classes of Paris.

 Hotel de la Marine (lamppost) can be viewed at –

It is ironic that most people today have the same attitude towards the current Paris that Marville had towards the one displaced during the 1850s. But while his nostalgia is for the city of his youth, the one in which his memories were rooted, ours is for the city that grew out of its destruction. Inevitably, all cities transform at a faster clip than that to which their people can comfortably adjust. Therefore, the Parisian citizens’ resilience in spite of the never-ending, merciless evolution of the city speaks to humans’ ability to adapt and flourish with the faith that out of the chaos of today will emerge a more promising tomorrow.