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An Insider's View Of 19th-Century Paris (Even The Urinals)

Sep 30, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 11:11 am

A city under construction — and destruction — is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris" is a collection of 19th-century photographs of one of the world's most beloved cities as it transitioned from medieval architectural hodgepodge to what became the City of Light.

The images were taken by photographer Charles Marville, who, according to an 1854 self-portrait, was short — a bit under 5 feet 2 inches — with a flowing mustache, blue eyes and a little bit of a potbelly.

With his large-format 8-by-10 camera, glass plates and natural light, Marville captured a sepia-toned Paris

"He's showing parts of the city at the moment before their disappearance," says curator Sarah Kennel.

Napoleon III was determined to make Paris into the world's most modern city, and he charged urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the task. In the early 1860s, Marville was commissioned to document the process, or, as Kennel describes it, "to create a record of the material culture of a city that would soon be destroyed."

"That's why I think his photographs were also so powerful," she says. "He's so conscious of taking down every detail of the streets, of the street signs, of the reflections in the window, of the shape of the cobblestones, because this is going to be the record of this place."

Paris at that time was, as someone delicately put it, "a giant hole of putrefaction."

"The sewer system was almost nonexistent," Kennel says, "so people would just throw the muck out onto the street."

Napoleon and friends put in some outdoor facilities, which Marville photographed. They were called pissoirs, or public urinals: half-circle, high fences on poles with no roof. There wasn't much privacy, but they covered what needed to be covered — shoulder to knee. And they were certainly more hygienic than sloshing through the muck.

Haussmann had some 20,000 gas lamps installed on Paris streets, many of which Marville also photographed.

"The lamppost, the streets were all situated in perfect harmony," Kennel says. "And, in fact, the architect was very obsessive, in a way, almost about the height of the lamppost. And if you look down the street, they would all seem like they were at the same height, even if the streets themselves had slightly different heights. So you had some of them up on a little bit of a stilt and other ones cut down a little bit, so that you would see this regularity and harmony and order as you looked down the street."

Kennel says creating all that symmetry made a bit of a mess: "Paris was one giant construction site at this moment, particularly the center of Paris and the western edge of Paris. And everywhere you went, boulevards were being built, streets were being torn up, whole neighborhoods were being razed."

Again, Marville shows the evidence in a picture taken on the right bank of the Seine: There's the river, Notre Dame Cathedral in the far background and a new wing of the Louvre going up along the riverside.

"You can see the banks lined with chunks of quarry stone that are going to be used to build Paris, also enigmatic, covered piles of things," Kennel says. "And you also get a real sense of how much the Seine was the center of industry."

Back then, before Napoleon and Haussmann, the river was the highway — everything went up and down the Seine.

"Then they built all the grand boulevards, and it became a place where now you can take nice, lovely boat rides and look at all the monuments," Kennel explains.

One of the many miracles of Paris is the history that's lived with every day. The most modern building will give onto a plaza that's been in place for centuries; the most glorious old garden has flowers that distract from an ugly new tower. In the 19th century, Marville photographed what was new then, and still delights us now. And, as photographer of Paris, he documented earlier histories before they were erased.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A city under construction - and destruction - is on view right now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Some 100 images of 19th century photographs are on display. They capture one of the world's treasures, the city of Paris, as it made the transition from medieval architectural hodgepodge to what became the City of Light.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says if you can't get to Paris, this exhibition will take you there.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Photographer Charles Marville was short, a bit under five-two, with a flowing moustache. And in a self-portrait from 1854...

SARAH KENNEL: Little bit of a pot belly but, you know.

STAMBERG: I wish I could see his eyes better 'cause that's what it was all about, huh?

KENNEL: He had blue eyes.

STAMBERG: Curator Sarah kennel says with his large-format 8-by-10 camera, glass plates and natural light, Marville captured a sepia-toned Paris.

KENNEL: He's showing parts of the city at the moment before they're disappearing.

STAMBERG: Napoleon III was determined to make Paris into the world's most modern city. He charged urban planner Baron George-Eugene Haussmann with the task. In the early 1860s, Charles Marville was commissioned to document the process.

KENNEL: It was to create a record of the material culture of a city that would soon be destroyed. And that's why I think his photographs are also so powerful. He's so conscious of taking down every detail of the streets - of the street signs, of the reflections in the window, of the shape of the cobblestone because this was going to be the record of this place.

STAMBERG: Paris was, as someone delicately put it, a giant hole of putrefication(ph).

KENNEL: Yes. I mean, the sewer system was almost nonexistent. So people would just throw the muck out onto the street.

STAMBERG: Napoleon and friends put in some outdoor facilities. Marville photographed them - pissoirs.

Public urinals in the street -now, these were urinals for men.

Not much privacy. Half-circle high fences on poles, no roof, but they covered what needed to be covered, from shoulder to knee - period - certainly more hygienic than sloshing through the muck.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: That's great. OK.

Haussmann had some 20,000 gas lamps installed on Paris streets.

KENNEL: We can look at it in this photograph and see the ways in which everything - the lampposts, the streets - were all situated in perfect harmony. And, in fact, the architect was very obsessive in a way, almost about the height of the lamppost. So if you look down the street, they all seem like they're at the same height, even if the streets themselves had slightly different heights.

So you had some of them up on a little bit of a stilt and other ones cut down a little bit, so that you could see this regularity and harmony and order if you look down the street.

STAMBERG: Curator Kennel says it made a mess to create all that symmetry.

KENNEL: Exactly. I mean, Paris was one giant construction site at this moment; particularly the center of Paris and the western edge of Paris. And everywhere you went, boulevards were being built, streets were being torn up, whole neighborhoods were being razed.

STAMBERG: Again, Charles Marville shows the evidence in a picture taken on the Right Bank of the Seine; there's the river, Notre Dame Cathedral in the far background, a new wing of the Louvre going up along the river.

KENNEL: You can see the banks lined with chunks of quarried stone that would have been used to build Paris, enigmatic covered piles of things. And you also get the sense of how much the Seine was the center of industry.

STAMBERG: The river was the highway then. Before Napoleon and Haussmann, everything went up and down the Seine.

KENNEL: And then they built the grand boulevards, and it became a place where now you can take nice, lovely boat rides and look at all the monuments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: One of the many miracles of Paris is the history that's lived with everyday. The most modern building will give onto a plaza that's been in place for centuries. The most glorious old garden has flowers that distract from an ugly new tower. In the 19th century, Charles Marville photographed what was new then and still delights us now. And as photographer of Paris, he documented earlier histories before they were erased.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And so, Susan told us about moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art next year. You can see old, old and newer Paris at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.