The new Toulouse Lautrec Museum, now completely renovated, re-opened to the public after a ten-year closure in April 2012. It’s housed in the stunning Palais de la Berbie, or Bishop’s Palace, beside the cathedral. It fits perfectly into the red-brick setting of Albi in the Tarn region of Languedoc.
The SettingThe museum is set in the former Bishop’s Palace beside the extraordinary, huge, soaring cathedral of Ste–Cecile. The cathedral and the palace are intimately tied up with the history of the Cathars, the religious sect who believed that only the world of the spirit was good. They flourished in Languedoc in the 12th century until the bloody Albigensian crusade launched by Pope Innocent III in 1209. It was in two lofty rooms of the Bishop’s Palace that the Inquisition questioned, and tortured, many of the Albigensian Cathars.
Beside the palace stands the cathedral, built to strike terror into the hearts of all catholics and to inspire a sense of awe. Inside every inch is painted in extraordinary bright colours and at one end is the story of the Seven Deadly Sins in all their glory.
The Palace, built from the medieval red bricks that characterize this glorious pink city, is one of the most splendid of the thoroughly secular buildings constructed by the bishops of southern France. It took ten years to restore the building and the museum which tells the story of the artist who was largely ignored in his day but who is now one of the world’s favorite.
The MuseumThe life of Toulouse-Lautrec
The museum delves into the life of Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec and the raunchy demi-monde of Paris where Lautrec spent much of his life. Born in 1864 into an aristocratic family who had intermarried over generations, he suffered from some severe congenital defects. At the age of 13 he broke his leg which never properly healed, leaving him with the stature of a child. Unable to enjoy the normal life of a young aristocrat, he turned to art. But the squat man with a large nose had an irrepressible sense of fun which comes across in the first rooms of the museum where a series of self-portraits show him as he was. Beside these you see paintings by various of his many friends who clearly held him in great affection.
Toulouse-Lautrec as painterAfter the portraits, you come across paintings of horses which Lautrec particularly loved depicting. But looking closely at some of them, you realize that the perspective is odd and their legs not quite in the right proportion. It came from his short height; always looking up at the horse, the scale is not accurate.
Lautrec moved to Paris, studying art under the portrait painter Leon Bonnet, and life in the brothels and theaters of his favorite Montmartre. From this came those gloriously exuberant and famous posters of the dancer Jane Avril, of Aristide Bruant and the singer Yvette Guilbert and the paintings of La Goulue (‘The Glutton’) who created the French Can Can, so notorious in its day.
All those famous posters are here – all 31 of them - many in various stages of printing, as are over 1,000 works, lithographs, drawings and preparatory studies. It’s a fabulous body of work, wonderfully displayed.
When Lautrec died at the age of 36 of alcohol and syphilis which had caused havoc to his weak body, no official organisation wanted his art; all the Parisian institutions rejected the work. His mother preserved much of it, believing in her son’s talent. Then one of those happenstances occurred. In 1905 with the official separation of church and state, work began on turning the Bishop’s Palace into a museum. Lautrec’s work was offered to the museum and in 1922 the Toulouse-Lautrec Galleries were inaugurated with much of the work donated by the Count and Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec.
From the windows you’ll get a glimpse of the beautiful walled gardens of the Palace that look as if they are straight out of a medieval illuminated manuscript. Entrance is free, so allow yourself enough time to wander the paths between formal flower beds and neatly cut hedges.
Practical informationPalais de la Berbie
Tel.: 00 33 5 63 49 48 70
January Wednesday to Monday 10am-noon, 2-5pm
February, March, November, December Wednesday to Monday 10am-noon, 2-5.30pm
April, May daily 10am-noon, 2-6pm
June 1-20 daily 9am-noon, 2-6pm
June 21st-September 30th daily 9am-6pm
October Wednesday-Monday 10am-noon, 2-6pm
Closed January 1st, May 1st, November 1st, and December 25th
Terraces and gardens of the Palais de la Berbie
Open April 1st to September 30th 8am-7pm
October 1st to March 31st 8am-6pm
Admission Adult 8 euros permanent collection; 10 euros for permanent and temporary exhibition
Children under 14 years free
Audioguides These are available in varous languatges including English and are highly recommended. They cost 3 euros and you need to leave a form of identity when you pick up the guide.Film shows: Two films shown in the auditorium cover the life and work of Lautrec.