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Tour de France Femmes stage 5 culture: From Albi to Paris, the Sadness of Toulouse-Lautrec

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On the banks of the Tarn River, in the beautiful medieval town of Albi, sits the Palais de la Berbie, one of the oldest and best-preserved fortresses in France. Built in the 13th century for the bishops of Albi, the palace has stunningly high and thick walls, enclosing a central Court of Honour and keep. As the need for fortifications faded, from the Renaissance onwards, successive generations added grander features such as state rooms and formal gardens. In the twentieth century the building found a new purpose, when it opened as the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in 1922.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is Albi’s most famous son. Born to an aristocratic family in 1864 (his name originates partly from the Counts of Toulouse), Toulouse-Lautrec showed a talent for drawing from a young age. Physically his development was affected by a rare genetic disorder that prevented his legs growing normally. When he was a teenager he broke both legs, in two separate accidents, and neither break healed fully. Some have attributed his genetic disorder to inbreeding — his parents were cousins. With an adult torso, and child’s legs, Toulouse-Lautrec never grew beyond five feet and his physical appearance affected him psychologically throughout his life. 

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Encouraged by a friend of the family, the painter René Princeteau, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris in 1882. With some help from his influential and ambitious mother, he was able to study with the well-regarded portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Toulouse-Lautrec settled in Montmartre, which at the time was full of bars and brothels and destitute artists. He reveled in the seedy surroundings, indulging his two favorite hobbies — alcohol and prostitutes. His drinking was legendary, even among the hard-drinking artists of Montmartre. He created a fearsome cocktail called The Earthquake — half absinthe and half cognac in a wine glass. Due to his disability he walked with the aid of a cane, which he had hollowed out to turn into a long, slim flask to fill with a stiff drink. Not only could his cane save him from toppling over when drunk, it could also get him more drunk.

His paintings were diverse, but in the brothels of Montmartre he found the subject that came to obsess and define him. He produced hundreds of drawings and paintings of the prostitutes he encountered, finding in them beauty and sadness underneath the makeup. A related theme was circus and theater performers, and Montmartre’s famous Moulin Rouge. It is for these portraits, of women in their working environment, of the gaudy color of Paris, of human fragility, that he will be remembered. Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901 at the age of 36, of complications related to alcoholism and syphilis.

The quiet, sunny streets of Albi may feel a long way from the gutters of Paris, but in the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec we can see the largest single collection of work by a truly unique artist.

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