Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, La Toilette, oil on board 1896

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, La Toilette, oil on board 1896


His art encapsulates keen observations of the pizzazz of Parisian café society and celebrates the poignancy of the lower echelons of life in late 1880’s France. Though his own life was brief and ended tragically, an aristocratic cripple he died aged 36 from complications of alcoholism and syphilis. Today Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is the celebrated hero of Albi and much of the outlying area.

Albi, his birthplace, is a striking, pink city perched atop a hillside, its narrow streets and massive cathedral constructed of medieval brick takes on a roseate hue in the sunshine of southern France. 

The towns magestic landmark museum has recently undergone major renovations and now houses a staggering collection of the artist's works collected by his mother upon his death. 

To say this enormous church is the city's key landmark is an understatement. Looming over Albi, it is a fortress built to counter the Cathar movement against the Catholic Church. The first brick was laid in 1282 and took 300 years to complete. Austere from the outside, it has an astonishingly elaborate interior, every inch of the vast walls painted. Notable is a late 15th-century Doomsday mural wherein monstrous demons punish depraved humans for indulging in the Seven Deadly Sins.

Lautrec would have been familiar with this medieval spiritual health warning. Born in 1864 in a mansion a few streets away, his mother was a devout Catholic and first cousin to his father. Generations of inbreeding in this aristocratic family line are considered to have contributed to his life's health issues, suffering a genetic disorder characterised by brittle bones. In his early teens he broke both legs and they stopped developing. His disability ensured he was unable to enjoy the usual outdoor activities of landed gentry, so he focused his energies instead on art.

The magnificent 13th-century building adjacent to the cathedral, now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. The Palais de la Berbie was originally built for Albi's powerful bishops. 

In 1905, four years after his death, work commenced on turning the old palace into the city's museum, then offering a provincial collection of archaeological finds and some works of art. Around this time one of Lautrec's friends, art dealer Maurice Joyant, was unsuccessfully trying to bring posthumous honour to the artist by placing his work in some of Paris's big galleries. Joyant  then turned to Albi's new museum and with the assistance of Lautrec mother, a wide range of powerful works were displayed in the beautiful building. Thanks to further donations from Lautrec's family, the collection grew to more than 1,000 drawings, posters, oil paintings and sketches.

For decades there was scope to exhibit only a limited amount of these riches, funds were put in place to refurbish the Palais de la Berbie enabling the medieval building to showcase the Lautrec collection. The painstaking work completed, is today spread over two floors, with a  vast range of Lautrec's artworks on display.

The current exhibition starts by introducing you to Lautrec in a series of paintings and drawings: ironic self-portraits (he was a master at ridiculing himself) and enormously affectionate paintings by friends. There's a particularly engaging work by Edouard Vuillard showing Lautrec cooking for his friends. Moving on to his early works, you meet his family through his portraits of them, then step into further rooms of his sensitively rendered Montmartre brothel scenes. Upstairs are the crowd-pleasers, his music hall posters and other lithographs. Alongside are later works created after he was released from a sanatorium in Neuilly, revealing his sense of humanity and wry humour. 

Unfortunately his nearby home is not open to the public.

His legacy is an astonishing range of artworks totalling 737 paintings, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters and over 5000 drawings, testament to his unique talent, vision and personality. Influenced by the Impressionists, particularly the figurative painters like Manet and Degas, his art stripped away the supposed glamour of Paris nightlife revealing his fascination with prostitutes, their lifestyle and the somewhat gaudy seamier aspects which his paintings and drawings depict with such compassion and humour. He remained life long friends with Emile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. 

Visit Albi and the Museum of Toulouse-Lautrec on Day 13  TIKI TOURS Country Roads France tour - May 2017