Last week for this household featured one of those curious episodes when you stumble into the attention of the wider world and use up three seconds of your mythical fifteen minutes of fame. Here's how it happened: On the day that it was announced that a painting uncovered in 1991 in someone's attic in Norway had been declared an authentic Van Gogh by the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I received an email from a man who works at World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer. I almost just breezed right by it--assuming it was another one of those mass emails I get from various (mostly left wing) organizations--until I realized the subject line said something about my blog. So I opened the message only to find out that World News Tonight wanted to use a photo that I'd posted on my blog for their story on the Van Gogh painting. What??
The painting in question, completed in the summer of 1888, was of the landscape surrounding Montmajour Abbey. Montmajour was an abandoned monastery in Van Gogh's time but is now a museum and popular tourist site. It sits atop a sizeable hill a few miles from Arles, in southern France. It was one of Van Gogh's favorite places to go to look for views of the landscape around the city, especially in the summer of 1888, the events of which take up a sizeable portion of my novel Days on Fire. When I first traveled to Arles it was one of the sites I made a special point of visiting, and I've gone back several times since just to enjoy the quiet and the majesty of the old stone and, most of all, the splendid views. (The abbey nowadays also features regular art exhibits.) My wife Stephanie came with me when I went last July and she took several photographs, both inside and outside the abbey. I reported our visit on this blog while we were in France and uploaded a couple of the photos. World News Tonight found the photos and wanted to use one in particular (that's it above). They wanted to show viewers what the countryside that Van Gogh painted actually looks like. (Of course, while still rural that countryside today can't and doesn't look exactly the same as in the 1880s. And, besides, the stretch of landscape captured in my wife's photo isn't identical to what Van Gogh painted. But was I going to point this out to World News Tonight?) The really ironic thing is that of all the masterful photographs Stephanie took during our European trip, she was least thrilled about the photos she took outside at Montmajour and for a simple reason: The sun was so bright she couldn't even see the screen that tells you what you are photographing! Essentially, she was shooting blind.
But blind must have been pretty good, because World News Tonight wanted to use her photograph. It made for an excited stir at the office early in the afternoon. Funny though, we forgot to watch the show later. I got busy making dinner, and she was working on the computer, and we completely missed it. (Perhaps factoring in a bit was my skepticism. I know that news programs prepare a lot more news than they actually show.) However, on my email that evening was another message from the World News Tonight employee. He had sent it right before they went on the air and advised me that they were still planning on using the photograph; the story, he said, would run at the end of the first block of news. We couldn't access that night's episode online until the following evening, but sure enough there it was: the picture my wife had taken at Montmajour Abbey two months earlier, fillng the whole screen, with her name superimposed at the left hand corner. When I excitedly informed my 13 year old son about his mother's accomplishment, he was typically unimpressed. "God, Dad," he said, "that is such a typical middle-class thing to get excited about." "Hey," I shot back, "you think it's so fantastic that the guys who make those gamer videos you watch have 80 or 100 thousand fans. World News Tonight is watched by millions of people." That gave him pause, but he even so he declined to watch the clip. (You know how it is, the toughest audience for the prophet is his home country.)
But if any Friends Of Stephanie care to check out the clip, follow this link to last Monday's full episode of World New Tonight with Diane Sawyer. The story about the Van Gogh painting appears toward the end of the first batch of news.