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Silent Movies in Passport to Paris Galleries Transport Us to 1800s France

The first time I saw the Lumière brothers’ films I was mesmerized. Silent, flickering black and white, and each less than a minute long, they give quick glimpses into moments of everyday life in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The people in them are at once both faraway and familiar. Men sport bowler hats and vests; women wear exaggerated, puffy sleeves and decorative hats. But as the films play on, it becomes clear that not much has changed in the nearly 120 years since these movies were made. People wait for a train, a baby messily eats an afternoon snack, traffic barrels down a busy Paris street (albeit horse and carriage traffic), and a father playfully tosses a toddler in the air and catches her on her way back down.  

Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948), two brothers from Lyon, France, were among the world’s first filmmakers. Inspired by the demonstration of a “peephole kinetoscope” (invented by Thomas Edison) in Paris in 1894, they went on to develop their own process of filmmaking, one that allowed the moving images to be projected onto a wall rather than visible to just one person through an aperture. By the next year they patented the Cinématographe and presented their first screening in a café in Paris.  

The brothers and their operators created 1,428 films. Many were made in their hometown of Lyons, but they also ventured to other French cities, including Paris, and traveled to Algeria, Italy, England, the United States, and other international destinations to film the people and places they encountered.  

To help make Court to Café (one of the three art exhibitions in Passport to Paris) an immersive experience, we wanted to include films that offered snapshots of life in France during this time. We worked with the Association frères Lumière in Paris to narrow down a selection of six films from their archives. Like the painters of the late 1800s, the Lumière brothers found inspiration in domestic life, leisurely pastimes, and people enjoying the city; ideal subject matter at a time when art and society embraced modern life.

We hope that visitors enjoy the selection of Lumière brothers’ films in the Court to Café galleries. For the film buffs who want to explore more, check out this movie about the Lumière brothers, narrated by the Association frère Lumière’s director. 

Image Credit: Louis Lumière, Leaving the Factory [May 26, 1895]. Copyright Association frères Lumière.

Molly Medakovich is the master teacher for western American art in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Molly has been at the DAM since April 2012, and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein.