Zoë McIntyre explores the city of Albi, in the Tarn, to trace the history of one of France’s most famous artists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in time for his 150th anniversary
It is early morning in the winding streets of Albi. In the medieval centre of this delightful city, capital of the south-western Tarn département, half-timbered brick buildings cast refreshingly cool shadows over the hushed cobbled alleys. It’s only when sudden shafts of gleaming sunlight strike these ancient buildings that their deep-red bricks reveal their true colours as they blush with iridescent roseate hues.
My companion and I follow the trail of the belfry tower that peaks above the slanted terracotta roofs. It leads to a wide, open square that is entirely dwarfed by the vast 13th-century Unesco-protected Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile standing in its midst. Considered the largest brick structure in the world, the cathedral is an astounding mass of gothic vaults and towering walls that culminate in a soaring 78 metre-high bell tower.
Next to the cathedral, the stunning Palais de la Berbie is the city’s other great attraction. Since 1922, it has been home to the Musée de Toulouse-Lautrec, dedicated to displaying the work of fin-de-siècle artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who was born in Albi 150 years ago this year. While many associate the artist with the absinthe-imbued cabarets and can-can frills of belle-époque Paris, it is here in Albi where much of his story can be traced.
Lautrec was born in November 1864 into an aristocratic family that descended from the Count of Toulouse. His birthplace, the now privately owned mansion on 14 Rue Toulouse-Lautrec, bears just a simple plaque dedicated to his memory. It was there that Lautrec broke one, then the other, of his legs during his teenage years. That led to the discovery of a hereditary disorder that made his bones brittle and stunted his growth, so that Lautrec reached just 5ft 1in in stature and famously relied on his walking stick for getting about.
The museum, which underwent a major revamp in 2012, offers a compelling narrative of Lautrec’s life. Within the thick walls of the former palace lie the world’s largest collection of his works, comprising more than 1,000 pieces that extend from early childhood to his untimely death aged 36, riddled with syphilis and alcohol addiction.
The early works depict Lautrec as an innately gifted child struggling with his health and appearance. Ironic self-portraits are hung alongside impressionist-style sketches of hunting parties and riders on horseback, but as our guide Laura explains: “Lautrec was fascinated by horses and loved riding, but as sickly, often bedridden, he was unable to join his family in these aristocratic pursuits.” These innocent sketches differ greatly from the grotesque caricatures depicting the sordid demi-monde of Paris; a world in which Lautrec quickly became absorbed after moving to the city in 1882.
Remaining unmarried until his death, Lautrec was notorious for conducting sexual liaisons with prostitutes and even kept his own private room in one of his preferred bordellos. Unlike Edgar Degas’s more voyeuristic brothel series, Lautrec’s intimate scenes depict the women at close range, often in mundane situations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his painting Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins where women are portrayed sitting around morosely, waiting to be called for routine syphilis checks.
Upstairs we find Lautrec’s iconic dance-hall lithographs, painted at the height of the belle époque and commissioned by cabaret owners to promote their venues. The posters have led many to hail Lautrec both as a father of modern advertising and a perceptive chronicler of his day, revealing the seedy and seductive truths of Paris in all its decadence. The exaggerated features, whimsical colours and blurred silhouettes of the posters not only made Lautrec’s name, but immortalisd the eminent personalities of the day; Laura points out Moulin Rouge star La Goulue, singer and comedian Aristide Bruant and Jane Avril, a dancer and favourite muse of the artist.
The excesses of Montmartre soon took their toll on Lautrec and the small, sombre paintings from his final years are tinged with sadness. When his mother had him committed to a sanatorium in Neuilly, west of Paris, Lautrec reverted to painting childhood snapshots of circus scenes and horses in a desperate effort to prove his sanity. “J’ai acheté ma liberté avec mes dessins,”he affirmed on his release. The rehabilitation did nothing to curb his alcohol dependency (visiting friends sneaked him drink that he would hide in his hollowed-out cane),
and Lautrec died, a few years later, in September 1901.
Remnants of Lautrec’s earlier and less seamy existence can be found a short drive north-west of Albi. Through blissfully bucolic countryside, streaked with vineyards and sunflower fields, we find Château du Bosc; a crumbling stone castle that has been in the Lautrec family for centuries. Originally built as a fortress to protect the surrounding valley, its austere façade is enlivened by faded red shutters and a backdrop of pristine lawns and daisy-strewn meadows. Observing this pastoral scene, which looks much as it would have when Lautrec spent his childhood holidays here, one cannot help but reflect on the stark contrast between this serene, rural idyll and the lurid night culture that dominated his later life.
The tiny, fragile figure of Madame Nicole Bérangère Tapié de Céleyran scuttles out of the château to greet us. The family residence passed to her grandfather Raoul – Lautrec’s first cousin – after the artist died in 1901 without leaving any heirs. Deciding to open her home to the public in the 1960s, Madame Tapié has dedicated half a century to disseminating the family narrative. Now in her mid-nineties (“88 ans toujours!”she insists) her indomitable passion and spirit are palpable and she remains one of only two guides giving year-round tours. “The house is big and I have a lot to tell you,” she asserts briskly.
As Madame Tapié strides up the winding staircase, we strain to catch the solid stream of family memories she throws us in melodically high-pitched French. In the nursery, she points to faint pencil lines that mark the height of the young Lautrec compared with his cousins. Sentimental souvenirs litter the place: old family photographs, childhood toys and handwritten letters.
The dining room possesses an eerie enchantment, with its old-fashioned furniture, washed-out tapestries and long dining table laid up for tea. At the fireplace, we learn of Lautrec’s nocturnal revelries when he would steal charcoal to stay up and draw. She speaks affectionately of his sense of humour, his love of cooking and his closeness to his family; all those intimate details missing from the collective memory. “It’s easy to make up lies about the famous, so it’s important I tell the truth,” she says purposefully.
Our final stop is in the château’s orangery where, on the smooth wall tiles, Lautrec’s childhood sketches share the same caricature features and horse outlines we saw at the museum in Albi. While the museum did well to paint a picture of Lautrec as an artist, it is here at Bosc that an intangible sense of his spirit lives on, present in the stroke of idle doodles and the nostalgia of memory handed down from generation to generation. I can’t help but wonder who will take on such a mighty responsibility once Madame Tapié is gone.
Back in Albi, we dine beside the river in the vaulted brick cellar restaurant belonging to the two-Michelin-starred chef Daniel Enjalran. Originally trained as a scientist, he set up L’Esprit du Vin with his wife Marion ten years ago and has applied his passion for innovation to his cooking style which is rich in adventurous flavours. No menu is provided; instead we enjoy each part of our multicourse feast almost as a revelation; our tastebuds are teased by dishes that include such ingredients as lobster tails, codfish and razor clams finishing off with refreshing sorbets and petits fours.
We shuffle out of the restaurant to catch the last rays of the late-summer sun setting over the river. Beneath the tangerine-streaked skies of dusk, Albi’s ancient buildings now radiate a fiery crimson glow; a testament to its epithet of la ville rouge. This is the final trump card of this astounding city, so full of surprises, that has awoken me to the joys of France’s south-west art de vivre.
By air: The nearest airport is Toulouse.
By rail: The train from Paris Montparnasse takes just over seven hours with a change at Toulouse.
By road: Approx. eight hours’ drive from north-western ferry ports.
WHERE TO STAY
Hostellerie du Grand
17 Rue Saint-Antoine
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 54 04 04,
Four-star hotel in the
heart of Albi. Doubles from €128
WHERE TO EAT
L’Esprit du Vin
11 Quai Choiseul
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 54 60 44
A Michelin-starred restaurant in the
historic heart of Albi. Open for dinner only.
La Table du Sommelier
20 Rue Porta, 81000 Albi
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 46 20 10
Restaurant offering exceptional value, with
a sunny outdoor terrace. Lunch menu
from €17, wine-paired menu €33.
WHERE TO VISIT
Palais de la Berbie
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 49 48 70
Entrance for adults from €8.
Château du Bosc
Toulouse-Lautrec, Le Bosc
Tel: (Fr) 5 65 69 20 83
Open all year, visit by appointment only, adults’ guided tour €8.
Tarn tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 77 32 10
Midi-Pyrénées tourist board
Tel: (Fr) 5 61 13 55 55