An Insider's View Of 19th-Century Paris (Even The Urinals) : The Picture Show In the early 1860s, Napoleon III commissioned photographer Charles Marville to document the city's transformation from medieval architectural hodgepodge to modern metropolis. The results of that project, known as the Old Paris album, are now on display at the National Gallery of Art.
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An Insider's View Of 19th-Century Paris (Even The Urinals)

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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

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