THE Count and Countess de Carri`ere were eating dinner when we stumbled wearily into their remarkable ch^ateau outside Toulouse for bed and breakfast accommodations - and they politely but firmly asked us to wait to be shown to our rooms until they had finished eating. My husband and I looked at each other and sighed. It wasn't that we wanted to interrupt their meal, but we both realized that the count and countess would soon be coming to terms with the broad implications of having just opened their ch^ateau to the public.
It couldn't be any easier for French royalty than English, we agreed. Faced with the need for financial aid to maintain the old royal residences, much of the nobility in Europe would also be facing the demand to change not only the basic patterns of their lifestyles, but of their thinking as well. The closing of economic gaps was only symbolic, it seemed to me, of the need to dispose of all of the superficial barriers that needlessly separate human beings of genuinely compatible minds and hearts.
As it happened, the countess did not, that afternoon, come down to show us our rooms. Instead, she sent us Raimonde. And Raimonde de Carri`ere was, in fact, the key to finding Henri.
Raimonde was the count's sister; and she was quite remarkable - gentle, childlike, seeming to exist utterly outside the trappings and responsibilities of the nobility, and untouched by the slightest suggestion of class distinction. Or should I say, rather, that her nobility was not worn on the outside, but was more evident in her humility and unselfconscious warmth. And that speaking to someone of her own ``class'' seemed to mean, to her, someone who shared her enthusiasm for beauty and, as we were to discover, her interest in the arts.
Raimonde and her brother had grown up together in the ancient ch^ateau, but when the count had married, Raimonde - to whom the home had not passed - had been obliged to leave. She herself had not married, and lived nearby; and her immense love for, and devotion to, the old place of her childhood was obvious and touching.
We were actually quite delighted when the countess was called away for a few days, leaving Raimonde to care for us.
And so it was that the next morning, over croissants and cocoa, Raimonde drew from me the fact that I was an artist - and we found out in the next instant that Raimonde de Carri`ere was a cousin of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
I was delighted. It's difficult to remember in any practical, realistic way that the great artists of the world had families, and some had surviving heirs.
Suddenly pieces began to fall into place. Of course - the famille de Toulouse-Lautrec would have been nobility connected with Toulouse. The ch^ateau was in the country, several miles outside of Toulouse. ...
As I was putting it all together, I realized that Raimonde was excitedly pulling out books, pointing to family portraits on the walls, eagerly detailing lineage, and explaining that her great-great-grandmother had, in fact, been Henri's aunt, his mother's sister.
``You are, of course, going to Albi,'' Raimonde said with conviction. ``That is where most of Henri's paintings and drawings are. His mother tried to give them to the Louvre after he died, but in those days they wanted no part of them. And of course, you must go to his home, see his cradle, and the place where he had the fall that ruined his life.''
As a matter of fact, we hadn't even known of the existence of Albi, but now there was no question that we would go. Yet suddenly, when I heard Raimonde speak of Toulouse-Lautrec's tragic life, it touched me as it never had before - as one who had studied and enjoyed his work and viewed his life through movies like ``The Moulin Rouge'' - that we tend to romanticize tragedy and human frailty. That we make these appear almost the inevitable accompaniments, and sometimes even the sources, of art.
Listening to Raimonde talk about Toulouse-Lautrec made him so incredibly real, so human and accessible, so worthy of the deepest compassion. And the fact that he was no longer alive seemed oddly irrelevant.
I wanted to consciously forego the tragic human history and the heartless romanticizing of it that obscures the fact that great art doesn't come from tragedy, but from the often Herculean effort to transcend tragedy. I wanted to love Toulouse-Lautrec enough to find the genius that tragedy, in the end, couldn't obscure.
It was difficult to say goodbye to Raimonde. But as we hugged and thanked her, I could only think how grateful we were that she had been there, and that she had made us aware of Albi and the museum, and so many other things harder to put into words.
All the way, as we drove to Albi, the lovely little city, I felt like a child expecting a particularly special present - and like an adult with a conscious sense of destiny. It was as though something unforgettable was waiting for me among the marvels of the Lautrec museum, and I was on my way to claim it.
The very concept of such a museum is spectacular - total devotion to the work of a single artist. And the intense focus on the operation and substance of a single human consciousness produces an amazing sense of presence.
For me, the exposure to every turn in Lautrec's artistic life was a moving one: his childhood drawings, the early rich and powerful paintings, his eventual emergence into a unique style, the strong, sensitive, but often bitter and anguished work of his mature years. But much of this later work was the artist I already knew.
Suddenly I stopped. In front of me was ``La Modiste,'' a painting I'd never seen before, even in reproduction. And the impact it had on me can only be explained by the fact that I was vibrantly expectant, and I knew the moment I had been waiting for had come.
Everything in the room except that painting seemed to vanish, and ``La Modiste'' emerged as if illumined from within. I knew as I stood there that for a few moments, or a few hours, a man tormented by the artifices and injustices and conventions of human existence had forgotten himself, and images expressive of a deeper, more selfless love had flowed onto the canvas.
An unfeigned purity and wholeness, a special peace - an artistic statement uncluttered by personal history, bitterness, or even opinion - shone through the expression on the canvas. And in those luminous moments I knew Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. I understood who he really was.
My husband saw what was happening and touched my arm. My eyes filled with tears, and I couldn't say anything. ``You'll be here for a while, I guess,'' he said - ready, as always, to wait patiently for me. ``I'll be up ahead someplace.''
BEFORE we left the museum, I decided to look through one of the books for sale in the little museum store, interested to see what had been written about this to me (and perhaps to many others) unknown painting.
I found that the painting had been done in 1900, a year before Toulouse-Lautrec's death, and was considered by many to represent his greatest potential as an artist, his deepest and purest achievement in art.
But this I thought, as I closed the book, the artist had already told me himself.