Mathilde Giard - 2012-05-08
After ten years of renovation work, the Palais de la Berbie - the palace that houses the museum dedicated to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) - has been completely transformed. Situated in the heart of the French painter’s homeland, the museum is a must-see for admirers of Lautrec’s art.
To think that the artist’s mother, Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec, had to knock on a good many museum doors before finding one that would accept her son’s studio collection! The set contained over one thousand sketches, lithographs, paintings and posters: a quarter of all the art created by the painter who immortalised the frivolity of Montmartre during La Belle Époque before he died in 1901 at the age of 36, ravaged by syphilis and alcoholism. Paris’s Musée du Luxembourg declined the countess’s offer, but Albi, where the descendant of the Counts of Toulouse was born, accepted without a moment’s hesitation!
Right next to the Cathédrale St. Cécile, where baby Henri was baptised, the Palais de la Berbie just happened to be available. A property belonging to the département, the former bishops’ residence became the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in 1922. Ninety years later, the medieval fortress has undergone a thorough transformation. ‘It was high time: the building had been neglected, there was no real museography, the atrium leaked… And now it has been reinvented!’ says museum curator Danièle Devynck delightedly. The project took ten years and 33 million euros to complete, remaining open to the public during renovations that led to several discoveries, including a pavement that marked the spot where the Inquisition tribunal held court during its 13C battle against the Cathar heretics, and painted ceilings dating from the 15C in one of the galleries.
A new oil on cardboard, La Modiste
The walls of the renovated rooms are graced with all thirty-one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters depicting the stars of his time, including the cabaret performer Aristide Bruant and the can-can dancer La Goulue. The space dedicated to brothels presents the famous Salon in the Rue des Moulins and the graceful Woman pulling on her stockings - Danièle Devynck’s favourite. The red wall seats hint of the atmosphere associated with the Parisian Bohemian whom the artist has brought to life. A new acquisition, La Modiste (The Milliner), is a full-length portrait which complements the better-known upper-body portrait of the same name. Look for the only painting produced in Albi, The Viaduct of Castelviel as seen from the window of Toulouse-Lautrec’s childhood room; and his last signed and dated opus, An examination at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, 1901.
The house where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born is within Albi’s Episcopal City, which joined UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010. True aficionados may choose to continue their pilgrimage as far as the village of Lautrec, the family fiefdom amidst garlic fields. The next destination could be the Château du Bosc in the neighbouring département of the Aveyron, where the young aristocrat spent his holidays. His great-grandniece, Nicole Tapié de Céleyran, shows visitors the wall where the growth of the family’s children was recorded. Henri’s stops at 152 cm, or five feet. A thighbone fracture in each leg brought the young teen’s development to a halt, as inbreeding had probably given him fragile bones (his parents were cousins). Unable to move about during long months, he discovered painting. Over a century after his death, the artist - whose pieces are now among the most expensive in the world - has finally been given a showcase worthy of his masterwork.
In the artist’s footsteps
Palais de la Berbie
Tel: +33 (0)5 63 49 48 70
Open daily high season; closed Tuesdays low season. Admission: adults € 8/£ 6.50; students € 4/£ 3.25; under 13 free of charge.
The Lautrec restaurant is located in the painter’s father’s stables, opposite the home where he was born (not open for visits). Try the ‘tartouillat’, an apple dessert invented by the artist who had a passion for cuisine.
13-15, rue Toulouse-Lautrec
Tel: +33 (0)5 63 54 86 55
Another possibility: Chef David Enjalran’s restaurant L’Esprit du Vin, the city’s (one) Michelin-starred establishment.
L'Esprit du Vin
11 Quai Choiseul
Tel: +33 (0)5 63 54 60 44
Where to stay
Set in the heart of the Gaillac vineyards, the (four-star) Château de Salettes once belonged to Hugues III de Toulouse-Lautrec. Double rooms from € 150/£ 122. (www.chateaudesalettes.com
). From Salettes it’s a lovely walk to the neighbouring castle, the Château de Mauriac, which used to be owned by one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s cousins, Alexis Tapié de Celeyan. It’s been bought and restored by local contemporary artist Bernard Bistes (www.chateaudemauriac.com
This May Dominique Miraille, an antiques dealer from Albi, is opening a fashion museum in the Episcopal city in a section of the old convent of the Annonciade sisters’ order built between the 13th and 17th centuries. Among the hundreds of garments on display are the frock-coats and high-collared shirts favoured by the men of Lautrec’s era.
Musée de la mode
17, rue de la Souque