Episode 6: Art and Architecture in Toulouse

Hotel d'Assezat, Toulouse

Last Updated on November 13, 2023 by Marian Jones

From Roman remains to cutting edge photography

This post will help you appreciate art and architecture in Toulouse. Think of Toulouse and you probably picture the pink hue of many of the city centre buildings, and the lovely maisons particuliers, fancy houses built by wealthy merchants in the 16th century. As for art, there’s lots of variety on offer – we’re visiting 5 Toulouse galleries plus museums of photography and graphic design! and ‘meeting’ a number of local artists who have made good over the centuries.

the pink city’s grand houses

Some of Toulouse’s most beautiful houses date from the city’s golden age, the 15th and 16th centuries when merchants grew rich exporting woad and showed off their wealth by building mansions. Many had stone facades – expensive and therefore status-raising – with statues and carvings as decorations. Turrets were another way to show that you had money to spend and they signalled power too, as only the ‘Capitols’ (city councillors) had permission to build them. These buildings are known collectively as maisons particuliers, meaning each was individually designed. A few are still grand houses, many others have been converted into flats, schools and office blocks.

One maison particulier you can actually get inside is the Hôtel d’Assézat, now a beautiful, 13-roomed art gallery. It was built in 1555, mostly of stone, a magnificent building with a columned façade and an elaborate courtyard. Other buildings worth viewing from the outside include the Hôtel de Bernuy in Rue Léon Gambetta, built for a wealthy woad merchant, Jean de Bernuy, in the 1530s and the Hotel de Bagis at 25, Rue de la Dalbade. Jealous locals speculated that the stone for its majestic façade had been stolen from the Pont Neuf, but it’s a fine sight, liberally decorated with carvings of fruits, flowers and motifs such as eagles and suns from the original owner’s coat of arms.

5 Toulouse art galleries

The Musée des Augustins, originally an Augustinian monastery, – the cloisters are still there – has been an art gallery since 1793, when many works taken from local churches during the revolution were brought here. Its collection of Romanesque sculptures is renowned and highlights among the 17th century paintings include Christ between Two Thieves by Rubens and The Descent from the Cross by the local artist, Nicolas Tournier. Three stand-out paintings from the 19th century are a magnificent Delacroix work called The Sultan of Morocco leaving his Palace at Meknès, a painting of a Young Girl in a Park by Berthe Morisot – the best known female impressionist – and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Passing Conquest, from his series depicting the life of a Parisian courtesan.

Les Abattoirs, which opened in 2000, shows contemporary art from the 1950s onwards in a re-designed former abattoir. Its massive spaces suit large pieces and among the 4000 works in its collection are examples from post-war schools of art such as Abstract Expressionism, Art Brut, and Japanese Gutai. The collection is categorised by themes such as ‘Cosmic dimensions’, ‘Political and engaged art’ and ‘Planet brain’. Controversial artists shown include Dubuffet, whose primitive approach to art – simple, childlike figures and drab colours – scandalised many postwar art lovers and critics, some of whom described his works as ‘like dirt and excrement.’ His exhibitions, however, proved very successful!

The Musée Saint-Raymond has France’s 2nd biggest collection of Roman sculptures after the Louvre. Many of the finds came from local Roman settlements such as Tolosa, (ie Toulouse) and Narbonne and in the basement you can visit the remains of a Roman necropolis, excavated in the 1990s near the tomb of Saint Saturnin, the site of the Saint Sernin Basilica. About 100 early Christian sarcophagi were discovered there.

At the Hôtel d’Assézat, also known as the Fondation Bemberg, are 13 themed rooms of art including the Portrait Room where you can see the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, the Impressionists Room – including Monet and Pissarro – and a Room for Drawings, showing works by Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Modigliani. Other themes include the Venetian Room, the Louis XVI Room and a collection of Chinese porcelain.

The Musée Georges-Labit was founded by Labit himself, to house the collection of treasures from the Far East and Ancient Egypt which he had amassed on his travels. Born in Toulouse in 1862, Labit was a colourful character who travelled far and wide in search of other cultures and famously remarked that travel broadened the mind: to paraphrase, ‘You won’t find big ideas on the banks of the Garonne.’ Here you will find rooms dedicated to different cultures, including Egypt, Japan, China, India and Mongolia. Temporary exhibitions have included ‘An introduction to Mah-jong and How to wear a Kimono’.

photography and graphic design

The Château d’Eau, a former water tower, was converted in the 1970s to house photographic exhibitions. It opened with one on Robert Doisneau, the renowned French photographer most famous for his photo of a couple kissing on a busy Parisian street, Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville. Its programme is varied and recent exhibitions have featured the Couvent des Jacobins, Le Rugby and Géométries, a selection of black and white photos of the city’s architecture. It’s France’s oldest public institution devoted to photography and it’s also a resource centre and publishing house. From the top of the tower, you get spectacular views of the nearby courtyard of the Hôtel Dieu St Jacques and a panorama of the city’s tiled rooves.

MATOU stands for ‘Musée de l’ Affiche de Toulouse’ and it’s France’s only museum devoted to advertising posters, also known as the Musée Paul Dupuy. It’s Toulouse’s smallest museum, but has 20,000 posters in its collection, ranging from posters advertising grocery products and cigarettes to ones by Toulouse Lautrec advertising Parisian cabaret evenings. Regular temporary exhibitions are staged.

There are details on the podcast about the Musée des Beaux Arts in nearby Carcassonne which specialises in French art, displayed roughly in chronological order and featuring local artists made good such as Jacques Gamelin, painter to Pope Clement XIV and Henri Martin, the neo-impressionist who painted many local scenes, some of which are also displayed in the Capitol in Toulouse.

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Links for this post

Musée des Augustins
Les Abattoirs
Musée Saint-Raymond
L’Hôtel d’Assézat
Musée Georges-Labit
Le Château d’Eau
Musée des Beaux Arts in Carcassonne

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