The Magnificent Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi France
“Everywhere and always ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where nobody else has noticed them.” ― Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Here's my guide to the absolutely fantastic Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi France. The museum is a must see site in the quaint medieval UNESCO town. Albi is nestled in secret out of the way southwest France. Despite being a hidden gem in France, Albi is home to a venerable world class museum.
I have a soft spot for single artist museums, and Albi's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is particularly sweet. The museum is dedicated to French artist and Post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. You may know him from his iconic posters of bawdy fin de siècle spots in Paris, like the Moulin Rouge.
The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is housed in Albi's stunning and austere Berbie Palace. The ancient fortress was a post-crusade statement building flaunting the Christian victory over pesky rebels. It's one of the oldest and best preserved castles in France.
The palace was vacated in the 20th century. Rather ironically, the former headquarters of the Inquisition now holds racy paintings of brothels.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec: the Life of a Major Turn-of-the-Century Artist
1. Early Life and Dwarfism
Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 to a wealthy and inbred aristocratic family, descended from the Counts of Toulouse. A childhood accident and possible genetic disability crippled him for life and stunted his growth. He had a full length torso, shortened legs, and walked with a cane.
His dwarfism naturally made Toulouse-Lautrec self conscious. He found solace in art. But he also found solace in absinthe and immersed himself in the gritty underbelly of Belle Époque Paris.
2. Move To Racy Montmartre
Toulouse-Lautrec became famous while living in the Paris neighborhoods of Montmartre and South Pigalle. Back then, they were seedy bohemian places filled with brothels and unsavory salons. They were a magnet for struggling artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, and Utrillo in late 19th century Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec's career was spent largely among prostitutes.
He became a lucid and uncompromising observer and painter of the seamier side of Parisian life. Toulouse-Lautrec was known for his dancing swirls of paint, his expressive line, and his intense use of color. With psychological acuity and great sensitivity, he documented the bawdy personalities of Parisian night life and brothels.
If you look carefully, you can see, beneath their thick makeup, the world weary pathos and isolation of many of his subjects. Some of them look sickly, as if they were about to die of consumption. Other times, Toulouse-Lautrec's works came close to caricature.
3. Battles with Alcoholism
Toulouse-Lautrec was unlucky in love. At 24, he fell for Suzanne Valadon, a model and fellow painter. But she was unfaithful and mocked him behind his back. That only made Toulouse-Lautrec drink more absinthe.
In 1894, he moved into a brothel and may have contracted syphilis from the redheaded Rosa La Rouge. But Toulouse-Lautrec claimed that he "never felt more at home." Unfortunately, while there, he drank himself to death. In 1899, he suffered severe delirium tremens and was admitted to a mental asylum in Neuilly.
4. Posters as High Art, Masterpieces of Marketing
Despite all this, Toulouse-Lautrec was at the epicenter of Paris' artistic and intellectual circles. He was a pioneer of new forms of lithography. Some of his greatest masterpieces were posters for nightclubs. They were an impact medium for the masses and drove up ticket sales. The posters gave Toulouse-Lautrec a tidy income.
Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate advertising to the status of legitimate art. He obscured the boundary between fine art and low art long before Andy Warhol was on the scene. As Cora Michael, a former curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art observed: “It is fair to say that, without Lautrec, there would be no Andy Warhol.”
In 1901, after "drinking everything in sight," Toulouse-Lautrec suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that paralyzed his leg. Then came a stroke. He died at only 36 of complications of syphilis and alcoholism, expiring as he had lived, in the margins of society. Having invented subversive celebrity, he may have fallen victim to it himself.
But far from being just a drunken poster painter, Toulouse-Lautrec was a consummate professional. He left a massive legacy of over 700 paintings, 275 watercolors, and 369 lithographs.
What To See at the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi
This wondrous museum should not be rushed. It contains the world’s largest public cache of Toulouse-Lautrec's art. After Lautrec's death, his mother donated the family's entire collection of his work to Albi. Toulouse-Lautrec's friends supported this gesture, also donating precious paintings and drawings to create an homage to the great artist.
Albi's mayor was delighted. In return, he promised to "spare no effort in giving these highly original works a worthy home." The museum was inaugurated in 1922. Renovations and acquisitions proceeded apace over the years. Major exhibitions were launched -- a rarity for a museum outside Paris.
In 2002, the museum launched a 10 year renovation. Now, the museum itself is a work of art itself with exposed brick, ribbed vaulting, a pavement of medieval terra cotta tiles, and ample space. During the renovation, 15th century mural paintings were discovered. They're now part of the D'Amboise Gallery.
Must See Paintings in Albi's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
Toulouse-Lautrec's works at the museum are organized in groups: works from his youth, works from his seedy stint in Montmartre, and works from his stint as a poster designer. All 31 of his world famous posters are gathered here.
On the second floor of the Berbie Palace, there's also a nice collection of modern art from the first half of the 20th century, including from friends and contemporaries of Toulouse-Lautrec: Emile Bernard, Maurice Denis, and Pierre Bonnard.
Here are some of my favorite pieces from my visit.
1. In the Salon at the Rue des Moulins, 1884