Art museum in the Augustinian Convent

This major art museum in Toulouse was founded during the French Revolution and is still located in the old Augustinian Convent, which was constructed beginning in the fourteenth century.

Entrance to Les Augustins

By the sixteenth century Toulouse had more than 25 religious orders (depending on what you count as what), not only the Augustinians, but also the Jesuits, the Chartreux, the Cordeliers, the Jacobins (aka Dominicans), the Capuchins, the Minimes, the Convent of Saint-Etienne, the Carmes, the Grands Carmes, the Carmes déchaussés (barefoot Carmelites), the Convent of the Sacred Cross, the Convent of the Sacred Trinity and numerous others. These were all Catholic orders, since Toulouse was a stronghold of Catholicism in the sixteenth century, unlike other parts of southern France where heresy and even Calvinism were widespread.

Courtyard of the Augustinian Convent

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789 the Augustinian order was dissolved, as were most religious orders, and in 1795 a provisional art museum was opened in the Augustinian Church. For this reason, Toulouse claims to have one of the oldest public art museums in France, since it was opened shortly after the Louvre in Paris.

(But both the Louvre in Paris and the Augustins Museum in Toulouse are a century younger than the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology in Besançon, which was opened to the public in 1694.)

Gargoyles howling at the moon

The museum of the Augustins has a large collection of gargoyles, presumably rescued from the roofs of old buildings. One of these gargoyles is featured on a poster advertising the museum.

The Red Room

One of the highlights of the Museum of the Augustins is “The Red Room”, where French paintings from the nineteenth century “are exhibited in the type of space that was contemporary to the works themselves.”

The museum’s website explains that this “vast hall with its glass roof, the splendid Pompeiian red of its exhibition panels, the black lacquer of the panelling and above all, the hanging of the frames in several rows, all reconstitute an extremely dense mode of contemplation of the works. Visitors to the Salon, the grand annual exhibition of works by artists in the 19th century, were used to this type of hanging.”

The main artistic trends of 19th century French art are represented here, from Neoclassicism to Realism, as well as paintings from the early 20th century, up to the beginning of the First World War in 1914.

Epigraphs

In the museum there is a large display of epigraphs. I read that these epigraphs are “spread over the Carolingian period and up to the end of the Renaissance” and that they “give the identity of the deceased, the date of their death and often their social status.”

The epitaphs are mostly written in medieval Latin, but some are in Occitan and a few in French. For those who can read these languages, the epitaphs “tell us about their patrons: clergy, lawyers, merchants, artisans, men or women, their professions as well as their hopes and beliefs…”

A funerary bas-relief and epitaph

This sarcophagus “presents a very common 14th century decor showing the soul of the deceased in the form of a naked child carried to Heaven by angels. Several works in the sacristy explore the same theme.”

Henri IV (1553-1610)

This statue of the French King Henri IV is on display above an elaborate doorway in the Augustins. The Latin inscription has something to do with the god Apollo and the goddess Minerva and with art and citizens’ rights — but perhaps someone who paid better attention in Latin class than I did can provide a proper translation.

Installation by Jorge Pardo

This installation by the American artist Jorge Pardo was prominently displayed on the ground floor of the Museum of the Augustins when I was there in 2014. It was described as a new setting for the museum’s Romanesque art collections.

The museum’s explanatory text says that Pardo is “internationally renowned for his colourful work at the frontiers of art, design and architecture.”

Romanesque sculptures on top of Pardo’s pillars

They describe his display at the Museum of the Augustins as being “an exercise in orchestration as much as a large-scale artwork”. They say that it “highlights the impossible neutrality of the museum context, revealing both what Jorge Pardo defines as a framing device and the complex weft of interactions binding it to the Romanesque sculptures of the museum’s collection.”

The English word weft is their translation for the French word tissu. I later looked up weft and found out that it was another word for woof, which in this case is a term from weaving (not the noise a dog makes) meaning a thread that goes from left to right or right to left rather than up and down. (So a woof would be analogous to a row in a spreadsheet, while a warp is analogous to a column.)

One of the Romanesque sculptures on display

My first impression was that this colorful installation was distracting my attention from the Romanesque sculptures that were on display on top of the pillars, but after a few minutes — of getting acclimatized, I suppose — I found that I really was examining the sculptures in more detail that I did with a lot of the other artworks in other rooms of the museum.

Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.

Next: First guided walking tour of Toulouse.

4 thoughts on “Art museum in the Augustinian Convent”

  1. Interesting to see the Pardo installation in with the Romanesque capitals. Normally I am quite in favor mixing new art with old, but I think I also might find it distracting. I recall spending a long time looking at a Gislebertus capital in that room—thanks for the memories!

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