National Gallery photo exhibit looks at ‘Paris in Transition’

[19 April 2007]

By Chuck Myers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

“Rue de la Bucherie” (1865/1869) by French photographer
Charles Marville is found in the exhibit, “Paris in
Transition: Photographs from the National Gallery of
Art,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC,
through May 6. (Handout/National Gallery of Art/MCT)

WASHINGTON - In the early 1850s, French Emperor Napoleon III charged urban planner Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann with an important task: Transform outmoded Paris into a modern urban metropolis.

The project proved a massive undertaking that created more spacious boulevards, improved public parks and services, and a greater abundance of commercial kiosks to better serve a growing bourgeoisie class.

And, through it all, photographers were there to record the changes.

The extensive Paris renewal project and the society that emerged in its aftermath provide the focus of a unique photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

“Paris in Transition: Photographs from the National Gallery of Art” offers a unique window on the infrastructure and social changes that occurred in the French capital from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. Organized by National Gallery assistant curator Sarah Kennel, the display presents 61 photographic treasures drawn from the museum’s collection.

The exhibit showcases work by many of the greats in photography history, including several French trailblazers of the medium. One such photographer, Charles Marville, played an important role during the renovation as the city government’s official photographer.

Marville recorded many of the old streets of Paris slated for demolition, including a richly encompassing view of one narrow thoroughfare, “Rue de la Bucherie” (1865/1869). Perhaps the most telling Marville image on display however, is one of a single gas street lamp. More than 20,000 new gas street lamps went up in Paris during the 1860s and 1870s, and enabled Parisians to spend more time out on the town at night.

Another French photographer, Charles Negre, recorded the construction of the Imperial Asylum, built to serve workers injured during the renovation and in factories, In another photograph, Negre captured an exquisite example of the city’s connection with its classical heritage. In “Tuileries Statue: Boreas Abducting Orithyia” (1859), Negre conveyed the dynamic gesture and energy of the public sculpture with a painterly quality.

Hippolyte-August Collard photographed another key aspect of the Paris renovation - a new water system. Collard’s images detail the erection of an expansive reservoir at Montrouge, which eventually supplied fresh indoor running water to thousands of Parisians.

A selection of photos devoted to public parks and gardens in Paris also introduces several works by renowned photographer Eugene Atget.

Atget didn’t always seek out the pristine and well manicured in his park photographs. The overgrown grounds and dilapidated sculpture in his “Parc de Sceaux” (1925), for instances, produced a theatrical quality and melancholic beauty. Parks aside though, Atget is today most remembered for his alluring views of urban life in Paris early in the 20th century.

A quiet intimacy coexists beautifully with a fragmented sense of the city in Atget’s image of a wine shop and cafe storefront, “A la Grappe d’Or, 4 place d’Aligre” (1911). The photograph possesses an indelible charm, and creates a strong link between the old and new Paris.

Nearby, Alfred Stieglitz’s view of a busy Parisian boulevard on a damp day in 1894 hints at the magnet Paris became for non-French photographers after the turn of the century.

German photographers Ilse Bing and Germaine Krull, and Hungarian-born Andre Kertesz produced distinctive perspectives of the city’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower.

Krull trained her lens on the Eiffel’s imposing shadow cast over the surrounding neighborhood, while Bing instilled her rendition with a semi-abstract character through a tight cropped view of the superstructure.

Kertesz’s photograph peers down toward a corner of the Eiffel Tower’s base and the curved shadow created by its decorative spans.

The cosmopolitan pulse of Paris also attracted many photographers, including the famous night owl, Romanian-born photographer Brassai.

Brassai’s captured many facets of the vibrant Paris nightlife, from socialites at a gala, to dance hall revelers and prostitutes on the street.

His photographs express a nostalgic quality that mixes a fleeting romanticism of the moment with a subtle gritty edge.

The fascination with the changes in the city and lively modernist trends had a downside as well, namely in the growing poverty that marked the late 1920s and 1930s.

Bing zeroed on the plight of the poor with a shot seen here from 1931 of a sullied, destitute figure stooped over to wrap a bundle in old newspapers.

Another photographer interpreted the neediness in a somewhat existential fashion.

Dora Maar, famous for her relationship with artist Pablo Picasso, provided her take of the poverty with a photograph of a limp toy puppet brusquely attached to a weathered wooden fence - an image most likely snapped in one of the rundown neighborhoods in the Paris outskirts that sprang up during the city’s renovation.

“Paris in Transition: Photographs from the National Gallery of Art” remains on view through May 6.



The National Gallery of Art is located on Constitution Avenue between 3rd and 9th streets N.W.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free.

Telephone: 202-737-4215.

Web site:

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