Grand tours: Paint your palette blue and grey

The artist Vincent Van Gogh writes a letter from Arles in France

Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert in The Netherlands. He studied at the Academy of Art in Brussels in 1880, moving to Paris a few years later, where he became acquainted with artists of the day including Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro and Gaugin. Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 hoping to start an artists' colony. Gaugin joined him a year later, but the partnership disintegrated into argument, not helped by Van Gogh's declining mental health, which resulted in him cutting off his own ear. Van Gogh died after shooting himself in 1890. He sold only one painting during his lifetime. The following excerpt is taken from one of his Letters to Theo, written in August 1888.

Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert in The Netherlands. He studied at the Academy of Art in Brussels in 1880, moving to Paris a few years later, where he became acquainted with artists of the day including Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro and Gaugin. Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 hoping to start an artists' colony. Gaugin joined him a year later, but the partnership disintegrated into argument, not helped by Van Gogh's declining mental health, which resulted in him cutting off his own ear. Van Gogh died after shooting himself in 1890. He sold only one painting during his lifetime. The following excerpt is taken from one of his Letters to Theo, written in August 1888.

This restaurant where I am is very queer; it is completely grey; the floor is of grey bitumen like a street pavement, grey paper on the walls, green blinds always drawn, a big green curtain in front of the door which is always open, to stop the dust coming in. Just as it is it is a Velasquez grey – like in the Spinning Women – and the very narrow, very fierce ray of sunlight through a blind, like the one that crosses Velasquez's picture, even that is not wanting. Little tables, of course, with white cloths. And then there are two women who wait, both in grey, a little like that picture of Prevost's you have in your place – you could compare it point for point.

In the kitchen, an old woman and a short, fat servant also in grey, black, white. I don't know if I describe it clearly enough to you, but it's here, and it's pure Velasquez. In front of the restaurant there is a covered court, paved with red brick, and on the walls wild vine, convolvulus and creepers. It is the real old Provencal still, while the other restaurants are so much modelled on Paris that even when they have no kind of concierge whatever, there's his booth just the same and the notice "Apply to the Concierge!".

It isn't always all vibrant here. Thus I saw a stable with four coffee-coloured cows, and a calf of the same colour. The stable bluish white hung with spiders' webs, the cows very clean and very beautiful, and a great green curtain in the doorway to keep out flies and dust.

Grey again – Velasquez's grey.

There was such quiet in it – the café au lait and tobacco colour of the cows' hides, with the soft bluish grey white of the walls, the green hanging and the sparkling sunny golden green outside to make a startling contrast. So you see there's something still to be done, quite different from anything I have done up to now.

I must go and work. I saw another very quiet and lovely thing the other day, a girl with a coffee-tinted skin if I remember rightly, ash blond hair, grey eyes, a print bodice of pale rose under which you could see the breasts, shapely, firm and small. This against the emerald leaves of some fig trees. A woman of the real country sort, every line of her virgin.

It isn't altogether impossible that I shall get her to pose in the open air, and her mother too – a gardener's wife. The girl's coffee-tinted complexion was darker than the rose of her bodice. The mother was stunning, the figure in dirty yellow and faded blue thrown up in strong sunlight against a square of brilliant flowers. A perfect Van der Meer, of Delft, you see. It's not a bad place, the south. A handshake.

Yours, Vincent

Follow in the footsteps

Coats of many colours

Inspired by the colours, light and tranquillity of Provence, Van Gogh painted many studies of the landscapes in and around Arles, including his famous 'Sunflower' series to decorate Gauguin's bedroom.

The two houses where Van Gogh lived, the Hotel-Restaurant Carrel and the 'Yellow House', were destroyed by bombs in 1944, but much of the Arles he knew can still be explored. Place Lamartine is where the Yellow House once stood and the park opposite was the inspiration for the series of paintings Van Gogh entitled "the Poet's Garden". Little remains of the Roman Place du Forum. In more recent times it has become a typical Provencal terrace, scattered with cafés and made famous by Van Gogh, who frequented the Café la Nuit and painted its surroundings.

Getting there

Return flights from Stansted to Montpellier cost £55 with Ryanair (0871 246 000; www.ryanair.com). A week's car hire with Budget (0800 181181; www.budget.co.uk) costs £136.

Try the Jules Cesar hotel (0033 490 525 252; www.hotel-julescesar.fr), set in a former Carmelite convent.

Contact the French Tourist Board (0906 8244123; www.franceguide.com).

Zoë Smith

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