Houston Gets a Rare Look at Old Paris at the MFAH

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston hosts a rare look at Charles Marville’s photographs of the City of Light pre-transformation.

Though commissioned images of the streets of old Paris make up the bulk of Marville's work, and of this show, there are photographs of other things as well. Since he was an artist as well as a documentarian and illustrator, and since the artistic conventions of the new medium were still being set down, Marville applied his artist's instincts as he tested the limits of the technology.

One series records clouds — not an easy subject when exposure times were long, since clouds move. In his series on the Bois de Boulogne, the large park on the western side of Paris, he positioned photographic landscapes in the established tradition of landscape painting which he knew from his early art training. Thanks to his public commissions to photograph Paris, Marville never had to make his living as a professional portrait photographer, but he even did a few of those to try them out.

Almost as a coda to his career, after the great changes he recorded through the 1850s/60s/70s, Marville captured a number of images of the results. He made some relatively lifeless images of the Grand Boulevards (not included here), and a number of very lively photos of the inanimate "furniture" of the streets of Paris: the gas-light standards that really turned her into the City of Light; the poster columns that told people about the exciting pleasures at their disposal in the modern city; the "urinoir" that made city life much more comfortable and convenient, a2t least for men.

The Paris before the Paris we know.
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Paris before the Paris we know.

Location Info


Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U


"Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris"

Through September 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300,

Among the most haunting images are a late group showing the outskirts of the city, to which those displaced had been forced: squalid areas reminiscent of the shanty towns of fast-growing third-world cities of today — precursors of the banlieue (suburbs) of our own time through which we pass on the train from the airport into tourist Paris, but about which we think only when news reports of racial/social/economic violence disturb our romantic vision of the city.

If you're familiar with Paris, one of the fun things in a show like this is to pick your favorite neighborhood and see what it looked like way back when. For me, Marville's photos of Rue Soufflot in the 1870s fit that bill best. It's a street I've walked often over 40 years, with a view of the Pantheon heading one direction or the Eiffel Tower in the other.

It's a bustling street day and night, though empty, of course, in Marville's photos. It's Hemingway's Paris — who in his poor, pre-Papa days, lived in a building across from the hotel where I always stay — which is what first brought me to the neighborhood. Thanks to Marville I can glimpse it before the Eiffel Tower (finished in 1889) and before Hemingway (who walked the street in the 1920s). The photos make me feel irrelevant and at the same time connected to the long history of the city.

This is the first U.S. exhibition of the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879), coming to Houston after stops at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition is installed in the downstairs gallery in the MFAH Beck building, across from the cafe. Malcolm Daniel, recently appointed curator in charge of the Department of Photography, explains that MFAH has never had a gallery dedicated to the museum's huge (and growing) photography collection. As a step toward correcting that oversight, the long downstairs corridor, adjacent to the Marville exhibition, will now be used ex­clusively for rotating photography shows. Up now is "Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters" — ­annual images of the same four sisters over 40 years.

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