Charles Marville Exhibition Behind Locked Doors


Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris curated by Sarah Kennel is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This marks the first exhibition of Charles Marville in the United States and the first scholarly catalog written on the accomplished 19th century French photographer. The exhibition explores the beauty, variety and historical significance of his work. However, at this time, no one can see the work because of the government shutdown — the National Gallery of Art is closed.

Charles Marville was the official photographer of Paris from 1862 until his death in 1879. His images of Paris date back to the early 1850s during the infancy of photography. He is largely thought of as a documentarian, but curator Sarah Kennel presents compelling research against the notion of his work simply as historical documents. Marville was a highly self-aware artist who consciously shaped his career and changed his name at the moment he became an artist.

The son of a tailor and laundress, Marville was born Charles-François Bossu in Paris in 1813 (bossu means hunchback in French). Around 1832, he changed his name to Charles Marville. He never changed his name legally and many of the legal documents pertaining to his life have gone unnoticed for decades. According the press office at NGA, Kennel and researcher Daniel Catan have made astonishing discoveries in Parisian archives that have provided a new history to Marville. This includes his biography, parentage and relationship with a lifelong companion. The research uncovers many significant details that illuminate the evolution and circumstances of his career.

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris includes 98 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.

“It is sad such treasures are under lock down during the U.S. government shutdown.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 24 — just days before the government shut down — I was able to attend the press preview of the exhibition and hear remarks from Kennel, associate curator of photographs, National Gallery of Art. The exhibition is incredible. Kennel has brought compelling and groundbreaking research into his personal and professional biography and argues against the notion of Marville simply as documentarian and provides a new history on him. She spent five years working on the exhibition with many trips to Paris. The exhibition ranges from his early self-portraits to the work of “Old Paris” before the modernization of the city and closes with his exploration of the emergence of Modern Paris. Marville’s photographs of the glamorous French capital not only documents change but “in their very form shape the visual rhetoric of modern Paris.”

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The National Gallery of Art remains closed among all Smithsonian Museums (and national parks). It is sad such treasures are under lock down during the U.S. government shutdown. Not to mention the hardships federal employees (the many people working behind the scenes on such important research and ground breaking exhibitions) are facing during furloughs from the shutdown. The exhibition is scheduled through Jan. 4. Hopefully, the doors to the National Gallery of Art will be reopened before the closing of the exhibition. It would be a tragedy for such groundbreaking research and works of historical significance in the history of art and photography not to be available to the tax-paying public.