Every Château Tells a Story #21: Le Château de Montricoux & the Painter Marcel-Lenoir

Montricoux is a pretty once-fortified town that sits on a rise where the Gorges de l’Aveyron peter out. We renewed our acquaintance with it this week, after more than twenty years, and discovered the château and the painter Marcel-Lenoir (1872-1931).

Westwards, beyond Montricoux, the plain flattens out towards Montauban. Eastwards, the dramatic gorges hem in the river, and provide superb settings for the hilltop villages of Bruniquel, Penne and Brousse and the riverside villages of Cazals and Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.

We managed to park on the opposite side of Montricoux from the château, which is also a museum devoted to Marcel-Lenoir. This was actually an advantage, since the weather was pleasant, and it allowed us to enjoy the picturesque half-timbered buildings and intriguing alleys of the centre. On a Monday in May, not a lot was going on. I imagine it’s different in the high season.

The Templars and the château

Templar tower
L’église Saint-Pierre. The spire was added in 1549 to the Templar church.

The present château was built in the 18th century, but it has much older origins. The Templars constructed an imposing tower in the late 12th/early 13th century with a chapel on the ground floor that still exists and is part of the château tour. The chapel was decorated with Templar frescoes in the late 13th century.

Chapel (later a kitchen, hence the fireplace). Frescoes in upper left. Marcel-Lenoir work over fireplace.

Around the same time, a château was built. Montricoux later suffered from the turbulence of the Wars of Religion, when the Calvinist rebellion spread from Montauban along the Aveyron valley. In 1568, the Calvinists burned down the medieval château.

The château was rebuilt in its present form on the ruins of the original in 1730. Eighteen years later, the French Revolution came along, the château was looted, and the top of the Templar tower destroyed. What you see today is the truncated version with a later roof. You can imagine that before its decapitation, the tower must have been a very impressive building.

Marcel-Lenoir never lived in the château, but the owners allowed him to use several rooms as studios. The Namy family acquired the château in 1979. Claude Namy realised a long-held dream to open a Museum of Modern Art dedicated to Marcel-Lenoir, having previously been the director of the Galerie Marcel-Lenoir in Paris. The Namy family still own the château. In fact, Claude Namy’s daughter showed us around.

Marcel-Lenoir

The château’s website includes an interesting biography of Marcel-Lenoir and an analysis of his work.

Marcel-Lenoir, pseudonym of Jules Oury, was born in Montauban in 1872, the son of a goldsmith and a florist. He went to Paris at the age of seventeen, intending to make a career as a jeweller. He soon became entranced by the world of art and entered the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, from which he was quickly expelled for having publicly called it a brothel. From then on, he was entirely self-taught.

The tour of the château is set out according to three distinct periods in Marcel-Lenoir’s artistic development. I was struck by the variety of styles he experimented with at different periods. He retained a lifelong interest in esotericism. His early works from 1890 to 1900 were influenced by Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Expressionism, and he often depicted religious subjects, as in the work in the chapel, above.

During his middle period, 1900-1910, his work became more avant-garde, influenced by Cubism and the work of Cézanne and Fauvism. His circle of friends widened to include Picasso, and the sculptor Auguste Rodin bought many of his works.

As well as being a time of great upheaval because of World War I and its aftermath, the third period, 1914-30, was tumultuous for Marcel-Lenoir personally. In 1917, he separated from his long-time lover, Zoé Chappé, who then tried to kill him. He survived and met his future wife and muse, Madeleine, in a sanatorium, where he was recovering.

An exponent of Decorative art at this time, he also realised many frescoes, completing 27 in 1916 alone while staying in Bruniquel. He remained a prominent figure in artistic circles and was a friend of Amedeo Modigliani. A portrait of Modigliani’s lover and muse, Jeanne Hébuterne hangs at the bottom of the staircase in the château.

Modigliani’s muse. Apologies for the reflection. I couldn’t get a better shot.

Marcel-Lenoir never lived permanently in the region again, but he retained a strong attachment to the area and often spent periods painting the towns and landscapes. To be honest, I prefer these works to his earlier paintings and portraits, but art appreciation is, naturally, subjective.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val with the mist along the Aveyron.
Cubist interpretation of Penne.

Marcel-Lenoir painted several self-portraits. These, with photos of him, show that he adopted a “typical” artistic persona, with long, shaggy hair, an unruly moustache and an unkempt beard.

The artist’s passport.

Having announced on 6th September 1931 that he would never open his paintbox again, Marcel-Lenoir died the following day.

Artistic town

As well as Marcel-Lenoir, the château has a gallery in the former stables devoted to the works of the contemporary artist Alain Laborde. They include these very clever, IMHO, metal sculptures of fish. When I looked closely, I realised that the scales are hundreds of coins, arranged according to size and colour.

Montricoux boasts another gallery of modern art, la Villa des Peintres. This includes works by the sculptors Ossip Zadkine, who lived in Caylus for a while, and Antoine Bourdelle, who was born in Montauban, among others. However, by this time, we were galleried out, so it will have to wait for another occasion.  

This gigantic hand sat in a corner by the church. I didn’t have a chance to find out who the sculptor is. If you know, please enlighten me in the comments below. I do like to credit the artist wherever I can.

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