This is a portrait of JEANNE LOUISE CALMENT (1875-1997) who was the darling of the media, back in 1995, when she reached her 120th birthday and became the oldest known person in the world - she would further become, by another year, the oldest documented person ever to have lived. I did several sketches, but it was another twelve years before I could start the figure. She was still riding her bicycle at 110 but she fell from it a year or so later, and damaged her hip, which caused her arthritis to advance, so that by 115 years, in 1990, she was confined to a wheelchair. At 118 years, she could no longer hold a cigarette between her fingers, and became a fire hazard, so she stopped smoking. By then, she had smoked continuously for over 100 years, during which time she had outlived every member of her known family, though she never seemed to be lonely, loving life as she did, and having so much of it to remember.
She was wonderfully self-possessed, and naturally polite, so she would always answer questions, but her answers would be as brief as possible so as not to be extensively distracted from her delicious thoughts of the past. "I was a great flirt." she would say, "There are just so many moments to recall, and each one always reminds me of other things long forgotten." and she would often ad, "You know, I only ever had one wrinkle and I'm sitting on it." This, of course, would all sound more naturally amusing in French. Indeed, she always lived in a very natural way, even refusing to have her cataracts operated on, because it was "Natural to have cataracts" at her age.
Her family had been wealthy, so, when she was 84, she was living in a fine Paris apartment when a real-estate broker offered to pay all her bills till she died if she would leave her apartment to him. She agreed, of course, and proceeded to outlive him and all his associates - and the company as well, which she had delivered into bankruptcy, though they claimed at the time it was only to void their agreement.
She was raised in Arles, where her father was a boat builder, and, when she was 18, she spent some time helping out her fiancé's family-owned fabric shop, which was frequented by Van Gogh when he needed canvass, and, of course she had waited on him. When asked, she would say," I will never forget him. He was just so dirty - he was filthy as a louse." It would seem that first impressions really are enduring - and one must keep in mind that Vincent was a failed artist when they met. He never sold a painting in his life, and the lack of recognition clearly unbalanced him - it may have killed him.
She would never give advice on how to live a long life, but would simply note that "God must have just forgotten me." I think not. In fact, she seemed to grow sassier and lovelier every year, and God must have just wanted to see how long she could keep it up. So, here she is sitting with her ciggies on her own little pedestal for all to admire, but none daring to interrupt the rich flow of her thoughts - good heavens, no!