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A brush with Van Gogh in picture-perfect Provence: How to create your own masterpiece… where the artist painted some of his best work

Vincent Van Gogh may have been minus an ear and borderline bonkers during his stay in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, but the Dutch master painted some of his greatest works here, in the bustling French tourist town near Avignon.

The prolific period of his career included Irises, Sunflowers and The Starry Night.

So, clutching a grade C in O-level art, I’ve travelled to Saint Remy to create my own masterpiece.

Guiding my hand is Aicha Bendafi, who patiently teaches tourists how to sketch the landscapes immortalised by Van Gogh in their own oily palettes of blue and grey.

We meet outside the gates to Saint Paul de Mausole, the monastery turned asylum where Van Gogh admitted himself in 1889, a year after cutting off his left ear.

Inspiring: Jeremy Taylor travelled to Saint-Remy-de-Provence to follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh. Above is Saint Paul de Mausole, the monastery turned asylum where the tormented artist admitted himself in 1889

Jeremy wonders if the landscape and lavender can inspire his ‘inner artist’ in the same way as it did Van Gogh. Pictured is a lavender field in bloom in the monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole

Tourists visit to see a reconstruction of the artist’s sparsely decorated room on the first floor and to follow a walking trail that highlights the locations where Van Gogh set up his easel.

‘He was fascinated by the quality of the light and the beauty of the landscape,’ Aicha tells me.

‘Thanks to a serene atmosphere and the help of the nuns, he completed more than 100 drawings and 143 oil paintings in just a year.’

Aicha explains that Saint Paul de Mausole is still a psychiatric home for artists to this day, with their work sold at a nearby gallery.

‘From the upstairs windows you can still see those same limestone hills, vineyards and olive groves that made Van Gogh reach for a brush and canvas,’ she adds.

There’s certainly an atmosphere about the place – far removed from busy Saint Remy, a short walk away.

Pictured is Van Gogh’s recreated room at Saint Paul de Mausole

Masterpiece: One of Van Gogh’s 15 or so olive grove paintings. Jeremy tries to paint a similar scene on his visit

This chic town of cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants celebrates Van Gogh’s 444 days in Provence in many ways – some naff – but I wonder if the landscape and lavender can inspire my inner artist in the same way.

Aicha has set up my easel in front of an olive grove, likely where Van Gogh painted The Olive Trees in June 1889.

His famous original is said to be worth around £60 million… so no pressure then.

Van Gogh is believed to have made 15 olive grove paintings, fascinated by the twisted, gnarly shapes which reflected his mental state at the time.

Saint Remy, pictured, is just a short walk away from the spot where Jeremy learns to ‘sketch the landscapes immortalised by Van Gogh’

Pictured: The Fountain of Nostradamus in the medieval old town of Saint Remy

I start simple, with a splash of yellow sun, but the shape of the tree trunks is already driving me mad. I’m struggling to capture the texture with my cack-handed brush strokes.

Aicha tells me to split my piece into sections, sky, trees and earth, and soon I’m wafting my brush around like a pro.

I find varying the thickness of paint adds an uneven, rough texture – Van Gogh often used paint straight from the tube but for the leaves, I decide to squeeze every shade of green onto my palette and go freestyle.

By now, a small gathering of tourists has come to watch. I hold up a thumb to help gauge the distance between the tree trunks, before a small ripple of applause breaks out when I scribble my name in the bottom corner.

It looks nothing like the view but I am sorely tempted to offer my ‘Olive Grove Revisited’ to the highest bidder.

Jeremy describes Saint Remy (pictured) as a ‘chic town of cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants’

Jeremy stays at Mas Van Gogh (pictured), a restored farmhouse a cycle ride from the centre of Saint Remy

That evening I retire with my rolled-up work of art to Mas Van Gogh, a restored farmhouse a cycle ride from the centre of St Remy.

This luxury, self-catering property boasts an outdoor pool and space for eight guests, but I imagine the Dutch master would have preferred to paint alone in a quiet corner of the enormous garden.

‘Olive Grove Revisited’ is now hung in my downstairs loo. One day, when I’m gone, maybe it will resurface in a secondhand shop. It won’t be mistaken for a masterpiece.

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