Henri at home in Albi

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec makes for a fascinating visit

The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec houses the largest collection of the artist’s work.

ALBI, France — The small town of Albi, located some 85 km northwest of Toulouse in the Occitanie region of southern France, may not be the first name of the list when one thinks of a Gaulic vacation, but if one is an art lover at all, it should be.

Albi’s most famous son is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the town’s museum in his name is nothing short of magnificent. It is one of the best single-artist museums I have seen.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Located on the Tarn River, Albi is a world heritage site with a population of just under 50,000. The first human settlement there was in the Bronze Age (3,000-600 B.C.) and it has been a prominent town in the region since the Roman’s came in 51 B.C., so there is much to see and do.

But it is the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec that is the town’s crown jewel. In 1876, historian  initiated the establishment of a museum in Albi. Originally in the city hall, it transferred to the Hotel Rochegarde, a mansion that had been left to the city. Toulouse-Lautrec, in 1976, 12-year-old Henri wrote to his mother, “I should be glad to devise a decorative scheme for Rochegarde — it would be fun to be present through my paintings down there where I used to be a young Levite in short trousers.” Little did he know.

The museum was no different from any other small-town museum, but in the years following his death, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fame grew and in 1920, his mother donated the family’s entire collection to the city of Albi. Even more amazingly, his close friends honored Henri’s mother’s wishes and donated many of their own holdings. These donations form the foundation of the museum, and the years that followed saw the collection grow through a series of acquisitions. The museum’s catalog offers a fine history that is a fascinating read.

In 2001, funds were secured to make the museum what it is today. It is a wonderful marriage of modern exhibition techniques and historical architecture. The collection alone would make it magnificent, but the display and information take the viewer on a journey through the life of a truly innovative artist.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born in 1864. His aristocratic parents were first cousins and it is believed that generations of inbreeding contributed to a genetic disorder which left Henri with brittle bones. In two separate accidents he broke first his left leg then his right, and they stopped growing at only 5-feet 1-inch tall. Unable to enjoy the typical outdoor pursuits of his class, he turned to art.

The museum covers the artist’s life chronologically, including early drawings and paintings that reveal his talents. “Artilleryman Saddling His Horse” shows the 15-year-old’s skills. The brushstrokes are expressive and the image crackles with vibrancy. There are already elements of his trademark fluid line work. Much of the early pieces reflect the Impressionist painters who were gaining notoriety in Paris, especially “Countess A. de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Drawing Room at the Chateau de Malromé” from 1886-87.

But it is in Montmartre that Toulouse-Lautrec found his artistic voice, among the prostitutes and dance girls. His art teachers had atelier’s there, and he moved there from his mother’s Paris home in 1884. Like Honoré Daumier in the late 1700s, and Edouard Manet and Claude Monet whom he much respected, Henri was inspired by the demi-monde — those on the fringes of respectable society — and decided his art should reflect everyday life.

The gallery is full of magnificent drawings and painted sketches that capture the men and women of the Parisian nightlife. The impulsive sketches are full of life and excitement. They are fast capturing moments that are quickly gone. A spectacular example is “Woman Putting on her Stockings” from 1894. Rendered with oil on cardboard, it is both spontaneous and measured, with only a few areas covered. Yet what more need to be revealed with more than these few quick strokes. Toulouse-Lautrec’s passion for these people is obvious.

A view of the Tarn river from the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo by Andy Coughlan.

The star of the museum is in two parts. There are two versions, side by side, of “In the Salon at the Rue des Moulons” —an oil on canvas 52-inches wide and 43 inches deep, and a full-size pastel sketch. The women of the night wait patiently for their next encounter. There is a stillness to the figures — they are women at work, making their way. There is no judgment from the artist. These women are his friends and he records them accordingly, with dignity. The painting is brilliant, but the sketch more than holds its own and gives a glimpse into the artist’s process. The colors in the sketch are vibrant and seem to glow.

The museum covers all aspects of his career, including the graphic design work. His lithographs are hung with the original drawings nearby, including several show posters featuring the cabaret artist Aristide Bruant and, of course, Jane Avril, probably his most recognizable image. Seeing these images together spotlights his understanding of the different needs of graphic design, as well as the influence of Japanese prints. His work was innovative and pushed the artistic potential of poster design.

Henri was teased about his height and sought solace in drink and women. In 1899, he was committed to a sanitarium in Neuilly for alcoholism. After his release, his style change, becoming less linear and using thicker paint, as in his last major work, “An Examination at the Faculty of Medicine.” The color, paint application and exaggerated hands give the painting an Expressionistic feel.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec died on Sept. 9, 1902. After his death, his mother continued to promote his work and the museum now holds the largest collection of his work in the world.

The beauty of the grounds, overlooking the river Tarn and the town itself, barely compare with the beauty to be found inside the museum. Toulouse-Lautrec was truly a genius, it is not too cliché to add the tortured prefix, but in his short life he revolutionized the genre of graphic design, while taking a deserved place in the pantheon of great painters. The museum that bears his name is equally deserving of a view.

­­­The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is open every day and admission is 8 euros.

ISSUE story by Andy Coughlan. For more photos, visit Coughlan’s blog here.

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, France. Photo by Andy Coughlan