Jean-Jacques Sempé, French New Yorker cover illustrator, dies at 89


A lone cyclist crosses the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain. A black cat sits on the gnarled end of a railing. A lonely summer beachgoer does a handstand at dawn.

Each drawing is shown from a distance, as if you were lucky enough to stumble upon a little private treasure and stop to smile at life. This is the world shaped by French artist and illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé for more than six years. decades – whimsical, playful and sometimes ironic – in anthologies, the popular “Le Petit Nicolas” series and more than 100 covers for the New Yorker magazine.

“What I love so much about cartoons is how they can express certain ideas quietly,” Mr. Sempé reportedly said in a 2014 book, “C’est La Vie!” The wonderful world of Jean-Jacques Sempé. “It’s a way of talking about yourself without really looking like it.”

Mr Sempé, who died on August 11 at 89, said he was delighted as a boy in Paris listening to jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie and how their music could convey feelings without words. Mr. Sempé seemed to borrow some of the same sensibilities. He used captions and puns sparingly, allowing his ink and watercolor images to comment on life’s timeless wonders, foibles and pleasant absurdities.

He often preferred a distant vantage point, artistically surveying scenes from above or across large cityscapes of New York or Paris, his two main points of reference. The hard edges of reality have been brushed aside. All that was left were little reminders to pay attention to special moments when they arose.

Her New Yorker cover for the January 5, 1987, issue was a view from a chandelier of two couples still dancing after a New Year’s Eve party ended. Students in a dance class surround a piano, seen at through a window on a city street, for the cover of January 5, 2015. For the August 21, 2006 issue: A smiling man walks through a park, seen from treetops, with his collar undone and his tie fluttering in the wind as if to celebrate the release of the grind.

Cyclists were a recurring theme – Mr. Sempé liked to ride a bike – as were the juxtaposed scenes of solitary figures amid huge backdrops. A concert pianist crosses a wide stage toward a grand piano on a 1999 cover of The New Yorker. (Mr. Sempé titled it “Slight Anxiety.”) A cover in 1979 shows cyclists on a tandem bicycle rolling through a grove of trees.

France pays tribute to beloved cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé

In New York, at the intersection of 47th Street and 9th Avenue, a faded mural signed by Mr. Sempé shows a man carrying a woman on a bicycle, dragged by a boy on his own bicycle.

“If God were a cartoonist, this is what his cartoons would look like,” wrote Mexican political cartoonist Francisco “Paco” Calderón.

But Mr. Sempé also knew how to draw with a bite. A 1963 panel shows a stage prop tree that has just flattened an actor. There were unruly schoolchildren and gruff teachers, frustrated Parisian traffic cops, unhappy tourists and self-absorbed intellectuals. When he depicts cats, however, they are always content and in control.

Mr. Sempé gave most of his work, particularly the depictions of Paris, a heavy veneer of nostalgia: the city’s traditional mansard roofs, roads full of Citroëns and baguettes sticking out of shopping bags.

“To me, the modern world lacks charm,” he told The Independent in 2006. “I’m not saying things have always been better in the past. They weren’t. But things seemed better, or at least more interesting, to me.

Jean-Jacques Sempé was born on August 17, 1932 in Passac, France, near Bordeaux. He described doodling and daydreaming as his childhood passions – partly as an escape from a turbulent family life that included an abusive and erratic stepfather.

“I wanted to be like the others. I was tired. The poverty was appalling,” he told News in France earlier this year.

He was expelled from school at 14 for breaking the rules and tried to land apprentice-level civil servant jobs, but failed the tests. With few options, he peddled tooth powder as a teenage salesman and managed to sell cartoons to French newspapers, signing his work as DRO as a rough phonetic English translation for the “cartoonist » French or draw.

However, it was not enough to live on. He enlisted in the French army at the age of 17 in 1950 by lying about his age. “The only place that would give me a job and a bed,” he later said.

He was discharged from the army after the ruse was discovered about his age. Next stop was Paris to try his hand as a self-taught illustrator in the comics industry. His natural talent was recognized with a Newcomer Award in 1952, which opened doors for him to work in magazines such as Paris Match.

His circle includes a growing friendship with writer René Goscinny, who would later co-create the cartoon world “Asterix”. They collaborated on “Le Petit Nicolas”, which began as a 1956 comic strip about the smallest boy in class Nicolas and his friends in a largely idealized version of post-war France.

The first book based on Nicholas’s stories was published in 1959 and subsequently gained an international following in the United States and elsewhere – with readers amused by Nicholas’ childhood views on adult oddities. Film adaptations followed.

“’Le Petit Nicolas’ is timeless because when we created it, it was already out of fashion,” said Sempé.

In 2004, Goscinny’s daughter Anne discovered dozens of untold stories of Nicolas and created a 600-page volume of the work. Mr. Sempé provided the illustrations.

His anthologies include “Nothing Is Simple” (1962), “Everything Is Complicated” (1963), “Sunny Spells” (1999), and “Mixed Messages” (2003). Graphic novels include “Monsieur Lambert” (1965), about friends in a bistro; “Martin Pebble” (1969), about a boy who cannot control his blushing; and “The Musicians” (1980), about the world of musical performance.

Survivors include his wife of five years, Martine Gossieaux Sempé, and his daughter Inga Sempé from his second marriage, to Mette Ivers. His first marriage, to Christina Courtois, also ended in divorce. Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available. Martine Gossieaux Sempé announced the death but gave no further details. No cause was given.

Mr. Sempé – who was widely known by his surname alone – lived and worked in the Parisian district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “He was brilliant when it came to satire, capturing a gesture, an attitude, a moment, bicycles, smiles, cats and musicians,” wrote Le Monde in a tribute after his death.

Mr. Sempé was introduced to New York in the 1970s by illustrator Ed Koren, who served as his first guide through Manhattan and beyond. Koren also brought him to The New Yorker, where Mr. Sempé hoped to join idols such as Sam Cobean, Saul Steinberg and James Thurber on his pages.

Mr. Sempé’s first cover appeared in August 1978 – a half-man, half-bird in a business suit perched on a windowsill, apparently hesitant to take flight.

The New Yorker’s art editor, Françoise Mouly, said the magazine planned to reprint one of Mr. Sempé’s covers for the September 5 edition. It will be his 114th cover, Mouly told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Sempé “always felt like himself in New York” and felt a special connection with its people, she said. After a cover by Mr. Sempé, there was always buzz in the offices of The New Yorker.

“Half my colleagues would say to me, ‘It’s me, it’s me,'” Mouly said.

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