Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

Church of Bacharach, Southern End, 1854

Self-Portrait at a Window, February 20, 1851
salted paper print from paper negative
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image © Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

In this early self-portrait, Marville stands in a flood of light at the window of his studio in the heart of the city. Holding what is presumably one of his photographs, Marville assumes the thoughtful and focused air of a sophisticated connoisseur.

Around 1832 Parisian-born Charles-François Bossu (1813–1879) shed his unfortunate last name (bossu means hunchback in French) and adopted the pseudonym Marville. After achieving moderate success as an illustrator of books and magazines, Marville shifted course in 1850 and took up photography, a medium that had been introduced 11 years earlier. His poetic urban views, detailed architectural studies, and picturesque landscapes quickly garnered praise. Although he made photographs throughout France, Germany, and Italy, it was his native city—especially its monuments, churches, bridges, and gardens—that provided the artist with his greatest and most enduring source of inspiration.

By the end of the 1850s, Marville had established a reputation as an accomplished and versatile photographer. From 1862, as official photographer for the city of Paris, he documented aspects of the radical modernization program that had been launched by Emperor Napoleon III and his chief urban planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In this capacity, Marville photographed the city’s oldest quarters, and especially the narrow, winding streets slated for demolition. Even as he recorded the disappearance of Old Paris, Marville turned his camera on the new city that had begun to emerge. Many of his photographs celebrate its glamour and comforts, while other views of the city’s desolate outskirts attest to the unsettling social and physical changes wrought by rapid modernization. Taken as a whole, Marville’s photographs of Paris stand as one of the earliest and most powerful explorations of urban transformation on a grand scale.