Pastel Night in Albi

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It was an action-packed weekend in southwest France. The vide-greniers (jumble sale) season got off to a flying start with a bumper edition in Caylus on Sunday. The SF was delighted with his purchase of an old computer screen to go with the ancient computers he is fiddling about with. I didn’t buy anything but enjoyed strolling up and down chatting with friends and marvelling at the things people find to sell.

But the highlight of the weekend was a visit to Albi, capital of the Tarn Département, for an evening of cultural entertainment. Every year on a certain date in May, museums and galleries throughout Europe open free in the evening up till midnight.

I have to admit that this initiative had completely passed me by in previous years but a friend asked if we would like to go to Albi this year. I readily agreed since the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum has been renovated and enlarged in recent years and this is one of my 10 things to do in 2011.

World Heritage site

Albi – Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile

We rarely visit Albi since it’s not our Préfecture and it’s about an hour’s drive from us. However, it is well worth the visit. The old town, built largely of pink brick, achieved World Heritage status last year, which has certainly given the town’s fortunes a fillip. The 13th-century Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, an enormous red-brick, fortress-like structure, dominates the town for miles around, although I don’t particularly like it. It’s certainly imposing but has nothing of the majesty of Chartres or the grandeur of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. However, the surrounding streets and alleyways are a delight.

Albi - Musee Toulouse Lautrec compressed
Albi – Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

The various cultural events were grouped under the title Nuit Pastel, the pastel trade being one of the foundations of the city’s medieval and Renaissance fortunes (like Toulouse). Le Musée Toulouse-Lautrec occupies the former bishops’ palace (Palais de la Berbie) opposite the cathedral. When we last visited, about eight years ago, only the upper galleries were open and they were rather tatty. Since then, at a cost of about 30m euros, the whole thing has been renovated and new galleries added in the basement.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of Albi’s most famous sons. Born of local aristocracy (his mother and father were first cousins) in 1864, his childhood was marred by illness and accident. He broke both legs and grew up with an adult-sized torso but short legs. It is now acknowledged that his problems were congenital, resulting from interbreeding. His personal appearance blighted his life and was probably responsible for his descent into alcoholism.

[Below is the covered market, tastefully lit up at night. The SF managed to weave into shot on the left just as I was taking it.]

Albi – covered market

Young Henri went to Paris with his mother after his parents separated and showed an aptitude for drawing. He eventually studied under the portrait painter Léon Bonnat, since his mother’s ambition was for him to become a fashionable painter of society figures. Henri had other ideas: Bonnat’s studio was in Montmartre, centre of Bohemian Paris and frequented by artists and writers. Toulouse-Lautrec took the inspiration for many of his works from the streets and cabarets in the area. He was highly skilled at portraying the colour and decadence of fin de siècle Paris without glamorising it. Individual figures stand out in his crowd scenes, in which he often included himself.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s dissolute lifestyle caught up with him and he died in 1901 at the age of 36, ravaged by the effects of alcohol and syphilis. After his death, his mother oversaw the establishment of the museum in Albi. A wonderful portrait of her by her son takes pride of place in the new downstairs galleries: straight-backed, haughty, eyes closed, she must have been a formidable woman. If I could choose any picture from the whole collection it would be that one.

Short life, prolific output

The new galleries put into perspective the astonishing variety and range of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. Although short, his career was extremely prolific. He produced thousands of drawings and hundreds of prints (making the latter enabled him to be financially independent of his family). He also produced more than 700 paintings. His works now sell for millions: in 2005, Christies sold ‘La Blanchisseuse’ (The Laundress, 1888) for $22.4 million.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, such as the Jane Avril and Aristide Bruand series, are well known. The museum also has some less celebrated works, such as a series of delightful small landscapes, which I had not seen before. The renovation works are not yet complete. I shall certainly go back.

Street culture

Outside the museum and the cathedral, there were plenty of other things going on. They included dancers dressed up as devils setting off fireworks to the sound of drums. This all got a bit noisy for us séniors, so age gave way to youth and we left them to it.

Albi has plenty of other claims to fame. The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the early 13th century took place in the region. More on that another time.

See the Albi Tourist Office website (navigable in English) here and the Mairie’s website here.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. yes – it’s worth any number of visits and I expect many paintings will be missing because of the renovation. I found it interesting to see the horses or, as you say, the landscapes, because they are not the ones we are used to seeing. And it’s not very conducive to have to crowd to see paintings, I agree. Besides it’s always good to have an excuse to return to Albi.


  2. What a great evening out. We went to Albi many years ago. I hardly remember it. And since there were young children in tow, we didn’t go round the Toulouse Lautrec museum. I’d love to visit that.
    I took the children to the nuit des musées activities in Gueret two years ago. That’s the only one museum anywhere near here, and since we’ve been there many times and know all the displays off by heart, it may be a few more years before I go on the free evening visit again!


    • Art galleries are not children-friendly in general! The Toulouse-Lautrec is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself there, especially as it has been renovated.


  3. The Toulouse Lautrec museum is fantastic and if you think TL is only famous for posters, look at his horses, some of them painted when he was a child- this was no graphic artist. He was a member of the aristocracy and he understood horses even if he couldn’t ride them.
    But the cathedral….have you been inside? Yes, the exterior is almost ugly, if astonishing- this was a fortified church built against its people, a message from torturer bishop Bernard de Castanet, to the heresy of Catharism, that Rome was all powerful. But inside…the ceiling was done in Quattrocento style by Italian artists and is very dainty. The carving on the choir is like lace, so delicate that Richelieu, when he visited, demanded a mallet to tap it- couldn’t believe it was stone. The Last Judgment fresco was the work of French painters in Flemish style and because it was vandalised to make a chapel entrance eliminates the figure of Christ (odd when you think of the evil Bishop) and leaves this incredibly awful depiction of souls tumbling into hell. Inside it’s a different cathedral and altogether one of the most extraordinary in France. Go back- you’ll grow to love it!


    • There were some lovely paintings in the TL museum. I have to say I didn’t always find his horses well-executed. But then I’m not a fan of horse paintings and have never greatly cared for Stubbs, for example.
      I’ve been in the cathedral several times. I agree the interior is quite different from the exterior. However, I find the lack of congruence between the two rather off-putting. I suppose I will have to try harder…
      We didn’t go inside the cathedral this time, since the aim of the visit was to see the TL museum and the extended galleries. Albi is always worth a visit, though, and next time we’ll do a daylight visit and try to see some parts of the city that we don’t already know.


      • I just love the cathedral for its eccentricity, but if it doesn’t grab you, no need to try harder!
        I don’t like Stubbs either, nor even horses very much, but found them way superior to Stubbs in any case.


        • Thanks very much for the links. I recall the second one from the museum on Saturday night but not the first (or maybe I just missed it; there were a lot of people and moving around was difficult). As the renovation work is not complete they might not have hung everything yet. And, presumably, they will have to keep a number of works in store anyway. Several paintings of galloping horses were on display, whose legs, I felt, didn’t look right and my friends agreed. However, movement is very difficult to capture.

          There were also a few rather fine landscapes, quite small, but he obviously didn’t feel so inspired by landscape painting.

          I will certainly go back to the TL museum since I didn’t feel we had done it justice, but will choose a day (probably in the winter) when there are fewer people around.


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