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I don’t kiss women whom I am interviewing—it’s not professional. But on one occasion I made an exception. Back in 1988 I met Jeanne Calment, aged 113, who was then the oldest person on Earth. That year marked the centenary of Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles, and I was there to hear her memories.
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 assumed that she was not long for this world, so it was a final goodbye. I was not quite right, for she lived on for nearly ten more years.
Born in Arles in 1875, Jeanne was 13 when Van Gogh arrived in town. She told me about encountering the artist in her family’s drapery shop, where he would buy canvas for his paintings.
Madame Calment eventually died on 4 August 1997, aged 122. By then she had become not just the oldest person alive, but the oldest who had ever lived. Her age was accepted by the French bureaucracy, her doctors and Guinness World Records —and eventually it would be on her death certificate. Today she remains the only person verified to have lived past 119.
By the time I interviewed Madame Calment in 1988 her stories were well honed. Vincent, she told me, was an ugly man, “more interested in drinking than painting”. The local children teased him, although they were frightened by his unkempt appearance. “Most of the girls were afraid of him, but the prostitutes liked him because he paid them well,” she explained. Vincent eventually went mad and “sliced off his ear like a piece of cheese”.
These comments were hardly enlightening, but I treasured them because they represented a direct link between our time and that of Van Gogh. Although The Art Newspaper’s style is not to use honorifics (such as Mrs), as a mark of respect for her age I have always insisted on calling her Madame Calment.
Theoretically the young girl and the struggling artist could certainly have met, living as they did in the same town for 15 months in 1888-89. It was also quite plausible that Van Gogh patronised the family shop for canvas.
However, it is harder to believe that Madame Calment would have had her own direct memories of the artist in 1988, since she was talking about a casual encounter that took place 100 years earlier. It is much more likely that her “reminiscences” were picked up slightly later after Van Gogh’s rise to fame began—perhaps from people in Arles who had once known the artist well.
But could Madame Calment herself have been a fraud? A new self-published study by the Russian researcher Nikolay Zak and his UK colleague Philip Gibbs controversially claims that there was an audacious identity switch. Their book, Jeanne Calment: The Secret of Longevity Unravelled , argues that the celebrated woman who died in 1997 was actually Jeanne’s 99-year-old daughter, Yvonne, who is officially recorded as having died of tuberculosis in 1934. The authors believe that it was Jeanne who died that year and that Yvonne then assumed the identity of her mother.
Zak and Gibbs do raise valid questions about the evidence accepted by Guinness World Records, although they admit there is “no single point of evidence that provides the smoking gun”.
But it remains unclear why in 1934 Yvonne should have embarked on such a complicated deception. The overwhelming evidence is that the woman who lived to 122 was indeed Jeanne Calment. This is still accepted by Guinness World Records and the French authorities.
If Madame Calment was in fact Yvonne, not Jeanne, then she would have had to successfully carry off the bluff for 63 years. What is more, she would have had to fake her age until she herself was 99. That would be quite an achievement: surely very few near-centenarians could maintain such a complicated deception under the spotlight of international attention.
I myself am convinced that Madame Calment was born in 1875. Even if she had no direct memories of Van Gogh, as she claimed, then she is still likely to have heard stories about him just a few years after he mutilated his ear and left Arles for the asylum. For me, Madame Calment remains an astonishing link with Vincent’s own time—and I cherish memories of our encounter.