The works of one of the most important Post-Impressionist artists fill the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi.
But how much do we know about this diminutive figure, one of the most important Post-Impressionist artists, ranked with Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin?
Who was this small man who wore a pince nez, always sported a hat and walked with a stick? What was his family background? What was his relationship to the women he painted with such passion? What was his life like in Paris, among the bohemians, the intellectuals, the prostitutes, dancers and generally disgraceful lot who lived in Montmartre?
The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi has some of the answers.
Those famous posters…
Everyone starts with those glorious, exuberant posters of the dancers who performed in the decadent nightclubs of 19th-century Paris. I fell in love with them and the whole idea of the decadent demi-monde Parisian life at the age of 16. My bedroom walls were plastered with those images.
There’s so much more to discover about Toulouse-Lautrec so start in Albi. This was the city of his birth and early life and much of the surrounding countryside has Toulouse-Lautrec connections.
Albi’s cathedral and the catholic supremacy
Albi is dominated by the buildings of the catholic church which stand at the heart of the walled medieval Episcopal City. The enormous red brick cathedral glowers over the surrounding countryside. Begun in 1282, it was intended to intimidate, to remind the population after the brutal suppression of the Albigensian, or Cathar heretics that the Catholic church reigned supreme.
Go on a cold, wet day and the cathedral takes on a menacing feel. You can imagine the locals scurrying past keeping their eyes on the ground, eager to get home and close their solid wooden doors against the authorities and the Inquisition. Medieval Albi was a dangerous place.
TIP: If you want a good novel on the times, read Zoe Oldenbourg’s book The World is Not Enough and its sequel, The Cornerstone. All medieval life is there in this seductive tale of a love affair and a noble family living through the time of the heresy.
Le Palais de la Berbie
Le Palais de la Berbie or Bishop’s Palace stands right beside the cathedral, as imposing and menacing as its neighbour. It was a fortress, a castle to keep the bishops and Albi safe but after the French Revolution lost its purpose.
The idea of a turning the Bishop’s Palace into a municipal museum was first mooted in 1905, just four years after Toulouse-Lautrec’s death. It was intended to be just another museum displaying local Roman finds. Then Maurice Joyant, Lautrec’s long-standing friend and art dealer, suggested that the new museum take the local artist’s many paintings that were in his possession and in Toulouse-Lautrec’s atelier.
With major donations, many from Lautrec’s family, the collection grew to over 1,000 paintings, posters, drawings and sketches. In 1922 it became the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum.
But it was crowded and unable to show many of the works. So in 2012 the museum re-opened in its present magnificent building.
The life of Toulouse-Lautrec revealed
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (to give him his full name) was born in 1864. He died in relative obscurity in 1901 aged just 37 of a surfeit of the good life, alcohol and syphilis.
Step into the museum and you step into Lautrec’s life. The first rooms give a glimpse of his early years plus intimate self portraits. There’s a drawing showing his adult body on top of his short legs, the result of a genetic disorder that stopped his legs growing after he broke them, the right leg at the age of 13, and the left a year later.
There are many surprises to discover and relish. He was a superb painter of animals, of his favorite dogs and particularly of horses and riders, a skill he learnt early in his life from René Princeteau, a friend of his father.
In the same room are some wonderful early portraits of his family and friends.
Toulouse-Lautrec the chef
A delightful painting by Edouard Vuillard shows him cooking. Later on in the museum come the menus he devised and the drawings he sketched on the invitations he sent to his friends.
He loved cooking for his friends, seeing a meal as a celebration every time he completed a painting or a poster. And there were many such occasions. After his death, Maurice Joyant collected his recipes and published them in a delightful book, The Art of Cooking. Along with Toulouse-Lautrec’s images come some startling recipes.
Toulouse-Lautrec the artist
You get glimpses of the influence of Degas on Toulouse-Lautrec in the paintings of dancers. Japanese ukiyo-e prints were another source of inspiration, not only in the style but also the subject matter. Many of the 18th– and 19th-century Japanese prints were of the Floating World. Shut off from the rest of the world, an artificial demi-monde was created to keep the samurai, and the rising middle classes, occupied while Japan was a closed country, shut off from the rest of the world.
Nightclubs and brothels
Then you move into familiar territory and the brothel scenes of Montmartre and the nightclubs of Paris where he spent much of his time in the 1880s. His dancers appeared at the Jardin de Paris and the Ambassadors. Most famous of all was the Moulin Rouge which opened in 1889 and took off when Toulouse Lautrec produced his flamboyant posters.
Dancer, prostitutes and friends
He painted La Goulue (‘The Glutton’), the French can-can dancer who performed at the Moulin Rouge, Her nickname came from picking up a customer’s glass and downing the contents in one.
He captured the jerky dances of Jane Avril, nicknamed La Mélinite who always covered her excessively long fingers with black gloves. Her style was described as being like ‘an orchid in a frenzy’ which conjures up all kinds of bizarre images. Looking at Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster, you get the sense of the description.
He caught the flamboyance of the cabaret artist Aristide Bruant, who wore a large black hat, cape and bright red scarf flung around his neck.
He depicted Yvette Guilbert in bright yellow, performing a selection of monologues which were referred to as ‘patter songs’, in effect a forerunner of today’s rap artists. She was admired by many including the English painter William Rothenstein who wrote about seeing her at the Moulin Rouge for the first time:
“…a young girl appeared, of virginal aspect, slender, pale, without rouge. Her songs were not virginal – on the contrary…”
She, like many others painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, was an extraordinary woman. She became a collector and expert on historic French folk songs. She died in 1944, aged 79 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The end of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life
Then you see the late paintings produced after he left the sanatorium in Neuilly-sur-Seine where he was being treated for alcoholism. Returning to Paris, he added the circus to his subjects.
He died in September 1901, aged just 36, at his mother’s château de Malromé in Saint-André-du-Bois. He is buried in the Cimetière de Verdelais in the Gironde, just a few kilometres away from the château.
More to see at the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi
The Toulouse-Lautrec collection is undoubtedly the main reason for visiting the Palais de la Berbie. But there’s a lot more, including an ancient room with a beautiful medieval floor of glazed terracotta tiles uncovered during the restoration. Take time to wander around the delightful garden.
There’s also a final series of galleries full of the works that filled the first museum. By this time, I had had enough which was a pity. If you can, pace yourself or allow yourself enough time as there are two more galleries with some significant 16th- to 18th-century paintings.
There’s also the long Amboise gallery with a ceiling that was again uncovered in the restoration, shaped like the hull of an upside-down boat and beautifully decorated. It’s worth saving some energy for this gallery; it has excellent images and information on Toulouse-Lautrec and his life and times.
I left the museum with a real affection for this artist who was such a genius, but clearly a man with a great zest for life despite his physical difficulties. It’s not often that a real personality comes to life through a museum.
Musée Toulouse Lautrec
Palais de la Berbie
Open Jan-March, Nov, Dec: daily 10am-noon & 2pm-5.30pm
April, May, October: daily 10am-noon & 2pm-6pm
June 1-20: daily 9am-noon & 2pm-6pm
Jun 21-Sep 30: daily 9am-6pm
Closed Mondays from Oct 1 to March 31, Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Dec 25
Tickets Ticket for museum and temporary exhibition: Adult €10; Family (2 adults + 1 child over 13 years or student) €21
Free for children up to 13 years
Hotel Recommendation in Albi
I stayed at the Hotel Alchimy, a 4-star hotel just a 5-minute walk from the medieval centre. It’s in an old building renovated into a boutique hotel with an Art Deco feel. Each room is different; mine was Roman Empire with pictures of classical ruins and imperious portraits. A small entrance room led into a large bedroom and a marble bathroom of definitely Roman aspirations (huge bath which was very Roman), great shower (which was very modern), and acres of space). There’s a great brasserie with locally sourced ingredients, a good outdoor terrace for summer dining and a classically styled restaurant. This is a splendid hotel, well worth the expense.
10-12 Place du Palais
Tel: +33(0)5 63 76 18 18
Discover more about the Tarn
Getting to the Tarn
Easyjet offers direct flights between London Gatwick and Toulouse up to 3 times a day during the summer months.