Friday, June 19, 2009

Napoleon III and Paris @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 photographs, 8 etchings/book prints/lithographs, 1 painting, and 1 sculpture, hung in three small rooms, with red and gray walls, on the second floor of the museum. The photographs are salt and albumen prints, from glass or paper negatives, taken between roughly 1850 and 1870, and framed in dark wood with antique white mats. (Installation shot at right. No photography is allowed in the exhibit, but I took this poor image before realizing that the prohibition was in effect.)

Here's a list of the artists represented in the show (with the number of works in parentheses):

Olympe Aguado (2)
Edouard Baldus (4)
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1 sculpture)
Hippolyte-Auguste Collard (1)
Benjamin Delessert (1)
Andre-Adolphe-Eguene Disderi (2)
Louis-Emile Durandelle (1 photograph, 2 book prints in case)
Leopold Flameng (1 book print, in case)
Franck (2)
Maxime Lalanne (1)
Gustave Le Gray (4)
Alphonse Leon-Noel (2 etchings)
Alphonse Liebert (4)
Edouard Manet (1 lithograph)
Charles Marville (6)
Charles Meryon (4)
Auguste Mestral (1)
Aldolphe-Martial Potemont (1 etching, in case)
Pierre-Ambrose Richbourg (1)
Charles Soulier (2)
Charles Thurston Thompson (1)
Unknown (1 photograph, 2 stereographs in viewing cases, 1 lithograph)
Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1 painting)

Comments/Context: It's easy to forget, given our fast paced contemporary lives, that at some point along the way, most of the world's major cities had to transform themselves from gatherings of small medieval buildings with narrow alleyways and bad drainage into carefully designed urban areas with broader streets and larger, more ambitious (and often ostentatious) structures. Emperor Napoleon III spearheaded the reinvention of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, and with the help of Baron Haussmann, created much of the underlying framework of the city we know today. This small but instructive exhibit at the Met tells the story of these changes, via photographs taken by some of the early masters of the medium.
The small exhibit is loosely divided into four sections: The Imperial Family, Old Paris, New Paris, and The Ruins of Paris. The first room is devoted to a generally forgettable group of portraits of Napoleon III and his family, in various mediums. While there are a couple of solid images by Gustave Le Gray here, this area can be mostly thought of as historical stage setting for the show that really begins in the next room.
Old Paris can be found to the right in the next gallery, documented primarily by Charles Marville among others. Empty alleys and waterways flanked by squat buildings and narrow cobblestone streets with neighborhood shops are all captured with luscious, deep tonality; these are truly beautiful photographs, regardless of the apparent simplicity of the subject matter.
Napoleon III's efforts to recreate the city were indeed thorough: they included new sewers and railways, new housing, new canals and bridges, new parks and widened thoroughfares. The images in the New Paris section along the next walls document all of these changes, with special attention to the New Opera and New Louvre. These are mostly architectural scenes, with some close ups of the underlying infrastructure (girders and the like) and the decorative details.
The Franco-Prussian War brought its share of destruction to Paris, and the last part of the exhibition chronicles these demolitions. Rubble piles that were once the Hotel De Ville or the French Ministry give a sense for the scope of the damage.
Overall, this is an effective exhibit that shows how a wide variety of talented artists, using the cumbersome technologies of the early days of photography, were taking note of the changing world around them, leaving us a valuable historic and artistic record of these amazing transformations.
Collector's POV: Much of this show was drawn from the Met's Gilman Collection (acquired in 2005) which has significant depth in early French photography. For our particular collection, one of the Marville images of old Paris (either a street scene or a lamp post) would likely fit best; several of the architectural works by Edouard Baldus would also potentially mix in quite well.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews of the show: NY Times (here) WSJ Speakeasy (here) Art & Artworks (here)
Napoleon III and Paris
Through September 7th

1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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