The Story of the Oldest-Ever Person

Jeanne Calment

Adam M Wakeling

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Jeanne Calment in 1895 (left) and 1996 (right) (Wikimedia Commons)

InIn 1988, a crowd of reporters descended on Arles to cover the centenary of Vincent van Gogh’s sojourn in the southern French city. Suffering from ill-health and seeking warmer weather, the troubled Dutch artist had moved there from Paris in February 1888. He stayed until May 1889, when he voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Those intervening fifteen months were among his most productive. Finding inspiration in everything from his bedroom furniture to the Provençal countryside, he created more than two hundred paintings. They include some of his most recognizable works, such as the series of blazing sunflowers he had painted furiously beneath the midsummer sun in August.

Van Gogh, ‘Bedroom at Arles’, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

The coverage of the centenary included everything readers and viewers would have expected — pictures of Van Gogh’s paintings, video of the town and surrounding countryside, and commentary from historians and art experts. But it also included something remarkable — an interview with a person who had actually met Van Gogh.

Jeanne Calment had an uncle who owned a paint shop where she would spend time as a teenager, being herself interested in painting. Aged 114, she recounted to journalist Jean Teulé how, a century previously, her future husband had introduced her to an agitated and shabby-looking Dutchman who had come into the shop to buy paint. She was not impressed with the man who would go onto become one of the most famous painters of all time, describing him as “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick”. It was an extraordinary coincidence. Many journalists cover centenaries, but very few are able to interview eyewitnesses to the events they’re covering.

The Record

Jeanne Louise Calment was born in Arles on 21 February 1875. She lived a quiet and comfortable life, marrying her wealthy second cousin Fernand Nicolas Calment in 1896, having one child, a daughter, in 1898, and then a grandson in 1926. The events of the twentieth century had little impact on her. Her family was not impoverished by the Great Depression, her husband was too old to fight in the First…

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Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.