One Should Never Leave Montauban

Montauban – Place Nationale

“On ne devrait jamais quitter Montauban!”, is one of the immortal lines spoken by Lino Ventura in the classic film, Les Tontons Flingeurs (lit. The Gun-Toting Uncles, 1963). Having renounced a life of crime to sell agricultural equipment in Montauban, Ventura’s character, Fernand, is called to the deathbed of a former associate in Paris. He promises to take on his shady businesses and supervise his wayward daughter. Pursued by murderous rivals and at his wits’ end with the daughter, Fernand regrets his promise, hence the line, which is probably better translated as, “I should never have left Montauban.”

There’s no evidence that any of the film was shot in Montauban, or that Ventura ever went there. Apparently, the director wanted a place name that represented provincial France. Montauban clearly did the business.

This tenuous connection with the silver screen led the town to erect Plexiglas statues of the characters on a roundabout in 2014. Someone stole them later, and the council had to replace them.

Pinkest town

To most Parisians, assuming they’ve heard of it, Montauban probably remains the epitome of small-town France. It’s the Préfecture, chief town, of our département, Tarn-et-Garonne.

It became so, somewhat later than the rest, in 1808. Napoleon was invited to visit and, to reward the burghers for their loyalty, he established a new département with Montauban as its capital.

Left bank of the Tarn in Montauban

We go to Montauban for dental and garage appointments and to buy things we can’t get locally. But it’s not often that we “faire le touriste”. Like many such towns, the outskirts are unprepossessing: bristling with billboards and temples to consumerism.

The centre, which is a bastide town founded in 1144, is more appealing. And it certainly earns its nickname as “the pinkest of the pink cities”, outdoing Albi and Toulouse for its quota of ancient red brick.   

Typical Montauban architecture

Last week, we delivered the car to the garage, and then attended to the important business of lunch. As always, the restaurant we had selected was fermé exceptionellement. We nipped around the corner and got a table in La Cave O Délices instead, which serves interesting but not over-priced food in a vaulted cellar. Being down below muffled the noise of the gigantic building site for a new car park in front of the cathedral.

Musée Ingres-Bourdelle

Musée Ingres

Montauban is also the birthplace of the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), a leader of the classical school, and the sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). The former Musée Ingres has recently emerged from a much-needed makeover and is rechristened le Musée Ingres-Bourdelle. We had visited several years ago, but I was interested to see the changes.

Guess who forgot their camera. And I’m in the minority of people who don’t have a smartphone. So I’ll have to use shots from an earlier visit.

They appear to have opened up new parts of the building. It’s now easier to navigate, although the understated doors looked more like entrances to cupboards, which had us peering around them to make sure we were on the right track. The walls have also been painted in lighter colours than those below, and the parquet flooring has been restored. The artworks are displayed better, too.

Bourdelle’s sculpture of Heracles/Hercules, probably his best-known work

The ground floor is now a temporary exhibition space, currently featuring works by Rodin, Delacroix, Degas (self-portrait) and Picasso (a lovely one of his young son). Other floors display Bourdelle’s sculptures and the paintings of Ingres and his pupils and contemporaries.

A musical theme links the two artists. Ingres was a keen violinist, and his violin is displayed among other personal effects. He was a good enough player to join l’Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. “Avoir un violon d’Ingres” has come to designate a favourite interest outside one’s main profession.

Beethoven was one of Ingres’ favourite composers, while Bourdelle was struck by his physical resemblance to the composer. He sculpted more than eighty busts and numerous drawings of Beethoven, using himself as a model.

Le violon d’Ingres, which has now been removed from behind the glass screen, along with his paints and brushes.

There is also a section explaining the turbulent history of the building.

Numerous incarnations

The vaulted salle du Prince Noir (the Black Prince’s hall) is the oldest part of the building. The English built it when they occupied Montauban 1360-69 during the Hundred Years War. The rest of the planned fortress remained incomplete when they were ousted.

Chambre du Prince Noir, complete with instrument of torture (a rack) in the foreground

Beggars and petty criminals frequented the spot until the 16th century, when it became a refuge for the Montauban Protestants during the Wars of Religion. After the town capitulated to Louis XIII in 1629 during the Huguenot Rebellions, Bishop Pierre de Berthier decided to transform the ruins into his episcopal palace. The main building, flanked by two wings and enclosing a courtyard, was completed in 1680 and houses the museum today.

The palace was confiscated as a Bien National during the Revolution. It became the town hall, before housing an art academy and a museum. Ingres left it a huge collection of drawings and 30 paintings when he died in 1869. Bourdelle’s sculptures were installed in the 1950s.

The museum has another claim to fame: the Mona Lisa took refuge there for a while during World War II, having been evacuated from the Louvre. The Abbaye de Loc Dieu, not far from us, had previously sheltered the painting, until it was declared too damp, and the long-suffering Mona Lisa went on the move again.

Mona Lisa – Wikimedia Commons

Famous Montalbanaise

Since today is International Women’s Day, it would be remiss of me not to mention Olympe de Gouges, who was also born in Montauban. She was an 18th-century writer, social reformer and proto-feminist, who considered that women should have equal rights with men.

Unfortunately, she fell foul of the revolutionary regime and lost her head in 1793. I’ve written about her before (link below).

It’s worth taking the time to wander around Montauban, the centre of which is semi-pedestrianised.     

Musée Ingres

You might also like these:    

The Tale of Napoleon’s Thumb

International Women’s Day: A French Feminist Pioneer

Montauban: Changes for Better – and for Worse

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.


  1. I think it’s worth mentioning that Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Dany le rouge) was also born in Montauban. His parents were apatride Germans fleeing the Nazis.


    • Yes, it’s worth a visit. Parking isn’t the easiest, especially as they are rebuilding a car park in the centre, but it never is easy in French towns in my experience!


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