I met the oldest woman in the world – she shared her memories of Van Gogh in Arles

I don’t kiss the women I interview – it’s not professional. But one time I made an exception. In 1988 she met Jeanne Calment, at the age of 113, who was then the oldest person on Earth. That year was the centenary of Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles, and I was there to hear her reminiscences.

At the end of the interview I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. It was a strange sensation to have such close contact with the oldest person alive – and I suppose she wasn’t long for this world, so it was a final farewell. I wasn’t quite right, she lived almost ten more years.

1895 portrait of Madame Jeanne Calment, age 20
Wikimedia Commons

Born in Arles in 1875, Jeanne was 13 when Van Gogh arrived in the city. She told me of meeting the artist in her family’s cloth shop, where he would buy canvas for his paintings.

Madame Calment eventually died on August 4, 1997, at the age of 1222. By that time she had become not only the oldest living centenarian, but the oldest ever. Her age was accepted by the French bureaucracy, her doctors, and the Guinness Book of Records – And in the end it will be on her death certificate. Today, she remains the only person proven to have lived beyond 119 years.

By the time I interviewed Madame Calment in 1988, her stories were well polished. Vincent was an ugly man, she told me, “more interested in drinking than in painting.” The local children teased him, though they were frightened by his unkempt appearance. She explained that “Most girls were afraid of him, but the prostitutes loved him because he paid them well.” Eventually he went mad and “cut off his ear like a piece of cheese”.

These comments were not helpful, but I cherished them because they are a direct link between our time and Van Gogh’s. Although the Art NewspaperHer style is not to use honorific descriptions (such as Madame), as a mark of respect for her age, I have always insisted on calling her Madame Calment.

Theoretically, it was certainly possible for the young girl and struggling artist to meet, living as they had been in the same town for 15 months in 1888-1889. It was also plausible for Van Gogh to patronize the family’s cloth shop.

Jules Molot, detail of the poster advertising Calment’s drapery shop in Arles (circa 1910)

However, it is hard to believe that Madame Calment had her first-hand memories of the artist in 1988, as she was speaking of a casual encounter that took place 100 years earlier. It is more likely that her “memories” were picked up later after Van Gogh’s rise to fame had begun—perhaps from people in Arles who had previously known the artist well.

But could Madame Calment herself be a deceiver? A new, self-published study by Russian researcher Nikolai Zak and British colleague Philip Gibbs controversially claims a bold identity change. their book, Jeanne Calment: revealing the secret of longevity argues that the famous woman who died in 1997 was actually Jane’s 99-year-old daughter, Yvonne, who was officially recorded as having died of tuberculosis in 1934. The authors believe that it was Jane who died that year and that Yvonne assumed the identity her mother.

Zach and Gibbs raise valid questions about the evidence accepted by Guinness World Records, although they admit that “there is not a single point of evidence that provides for the firearm.”

But it remains unclear why Yvonne had to embark on such a sophisticated deception in 1934. The irrefutable proof is that the woman who lived to be 122 was indeed Jeanne Calment. This is still accepted by Guinness World Records and French authorities.

If Madame Calment was in fact Yvonne, and not Jeanne, she would have had to pull off this trick for 63 years. Moreover, she had to fake her age so that she would be 99 years old. This would be quite an achievement: almost certainly very few centenarians could maintain such a sophisticated deception under the spotlight of international attention.

I am personally convinced that Madame Calment was born in 1875. Even if she had no direct memories of Van Gogh, as she claimed, she likely still heard stories about him only a few years after he mutilated his ear and left Arles. for refuge. For me, Madame Calment remains an amazing link with Vincent’s time – and I cherish the memories of our encounter.

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