France: At home with Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi

A newly revamped museum devoted to Albi's most  famous son offers an intimate look at the artist's work, as well as an insight into his short life, says Harriet O'Brien.

His art encapsulated the pizzazz of café society and the poignancy of low life in fin-de-siècle France. His own life was brief and ended tragically: he was an aristocratic cripple who died aged 36 from complications of alcoholism and syphilis. Today Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec is the hero of Albi and much of the outlying area.

Albi, the birthplace of the artist, is a striking, pink little city: its narrow streets and massive cathedral were constructed of medieval brick that takes on a roseate hue in the sunshine of southern France. I was here to explore the Lautrec legacy and to see the town's majestic museum – which has just undergone a major revamp – where a staggering collection of the artist's works is held. I had anticipated admiring Lautrec's draughtsmanship, enjoying the atmosphere of his posters and feeling unsettled by his depictions of prostitutes in many of his works.

I didn't expect to be drawn into Lautrec's surprisingly joyful world, laughing at his jokes and tuning into a tremendous sense of warmth. And as I travelled through his homeland I came across dramatic sites and epicurean delights.

Even if your main mission is to follow a Lautrec trail, inevitably your first stop in Albi is that brick cathedral. To say this enormous church is the city's key landmark would be a bland understatement. It looms over Albi, a fortress of God built to counter the Cathar movement against the Catholic Church. The first brick was laid in 1282; thereafter it took some 300 years to complete. Austere from the outside, it has an astonishingly elaborate interior with every inch of the vast walls painted. Most notable is a late 15th-century Doomsday mural where monstrous demons punish depraved humans for indulging in the Seven Deadly Sins.

Lautrec would, of course, have been familiar with this medieval spiritual health warning. He was born in 1864 in a mansion a few streets away. His mother was a devout Catholic. His father was her first cousin. Generations of inbreeding in his aristocratic family are thought to have contributed to his life's vicissitudes: he had a genetic disorder characterised by brittle bones, so much so that in his early teens he broke both legs and they stopped growing. His disability meant that he was unable to enjoy the outdoor activities of the landed gentry, so he focused instead on art.

All this, you learn in the magnificent 13th-century building adjacent to the cathedral, which now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. The Palais de la Berbie was built for Albi's powerful bishops. In 1905, four years after Lautrec's death, work started on turning the old palace into the city's museum, which then offered a middle-of-the-road provincial collection of archaeological finds and some works of art. It was around this time that one of Lautrec's friends, the 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. So Joyant turned to Albi's new museum. The result was a happy combination: powerful works by a local artist displayed in a beautiful building. And, thanks to further donations from Lautrec's family, the collection grew to more than 1,000 drawings, posters, oil paintings and sketches.

But for decades there was scope to exhibit only a limited amount of these riches. Fast forward to 2001 when funds were put in place to refurbish the Palais de la Berbie to show the medieval building to better effect and to make more of the Lautrec collection. The painstaking work is now finished: spread over two floors, there is a large range of Lautrec's art to absorb, with many works on show that have never before been displayed.

Yet perhaps even more significant is the intimacy that you tap into here. The 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. You move on to his early works; you meet his family through his portraits of them; then you step into a couple of rooms of his sensitive rendered Montmartre brothel scenes. Upstairs are the crowd-pleasers, his music hall posters and other lithographs. Alongside these are his later works created after he was released from a sanatorium in Neuilly. Revealed in some is an almost tear-jerking sense of humanity, in others much wry humour.

Having spent a morning with Lautrec, I went to dine at his home. Well, almost. Hotel du Bosc where he was born (on a street since renamed Rue Henri-de-Toulouse-Lautrec) is not open to the public. But you can book a table in the old stables of the mansion, which now house a cheerful bistro called Le Lautrec. Fortified by a fine lunch of cassoulet, I continued on the Lautrec trail.

I headed north of Albi, driving through wonderfully undulating landscape, to Lautrec's ancestral country retreat. With its round towers and stone tinged grey through age, Chateau du Bosc looks more cloak-and-dagger fortress than country mansion. And with good reason: the region was much fought over during the Hundred Years War. An incongruously tiny figure ushered me into the old orangery. My host was the castle's elderly owner, Madame Tapié de Celeyran. A visit to an aristocratic stronghold where your guide is the blue-blooded incumbent might be striking enough in itself. But to be welcomed by Lautrec's own family seemed enchantingly surreal.

Madame Tapié de Celeyran explained that had Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec not died prematurely he would have inherited this property. Instead, Chateau du Bosc was bequeathed to his cousin Raoul, who was her grandfather. Lautrec (an only child after the death of his younger brother) spent many holidays at the chateau in the company of his 13 cousins. And you know they had a great deal of fun simply by looking at the orangery walls decorated with witty cartoon sketches by Lautrec. Indeed, the great joy of coming here is hearing family stories as you tour the seven or so rooms open to the public.

In the old nursery I was shown the wall where the children measured their height – Henri, aged 18, was under five feet. Alongside are glass cases containing childhood drawings. All the children sketched, and no one can say for sure who did which jotting. While you go to the museum in Albi to see the artist's work, you come to Chateau du Bosc to dip into the spirit of the Toulouse-Lautrec family and to catch an almost tangible sense of Lautrec as a boy and young man.

My final stop was a complete treat. Chateau de Salettes, about 40 minutes north-west of Albi, has marginal connections with Lautrec – it belonged to the Toulouse-Lautrec family in the 16th century – but this glorious place offers ancient buildings, its own Gaillac vines and a Michelin-starred restaurant. And what better way to end the trip than with the Toulouse-Lautrec menu here? The feast comprises a fabulous mix of tastes and colours – from cod with orange and vanilla to veal with harlequin-coloured vegetables.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The nearest international airports to Albi are Toulouse and Rodez. Toulouse is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Bristol and Gatwick; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle. Rodez is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryan air.com) from Stansted.

Staying there

La Réserve, 81 Route de Cordes, Albi (00 33 5 63 60 80 80; lareservealbi.com), on the banks of the River Tarn just west of old Albi, is a charming Art Deco-style haven with 22 bedrooms and a great restaurant. Doubles from €198 room only.

Chateau de Salettes, Lieu-dit Salettes, Cahuzac-sur-Vère (00 33 5 63 33 60 60; chateaudesalettes.com). Along with its Michelin restaurant this vineyard chateau has 18 stylish bedrooms, starting at €135 double, room only.

Visiting there

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Palais de la Berbie, Albi (00 33 5 63 49 48 70; musee- toulouse-lautrec.com). Open April-Sept open daily 9am-6pm (closed noon-1pm during May and June); other months open Wed-Mon 10am-5.30pm (closed noon-1pm). Adults €8.

Chateau du Bosc, Camjac, Naucelle (00 33 5 65 69 20 83). Open daily 10am-noon and 2-7pm, by appointment with Madame Tapié de Celeyran. Adults €6.

More information

Tourism-midi-pyrenees .co.uk

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