Jean-Jacques Sempé, illustrator of over 100 New Yorker covers, dies aged 89
The artist behind the cherished children’s book series Le Petit Nicolas, Sempé also contributed countless New Yorker covers, each as gently characterful as the last.
- Liz Gorny
- 12 August 2022
Jean-Jacques Sempé, the much-loved illustrator of France and the wider world, has died at the age of 89.
His contemplative line, astute observations and penchant for irony were mainstays throughout his artistic career, though Sempé is perhaps best known for Le Petit Nicolas. The series of children’s books, which he co-created with writer René Goscinny, offered a refreshingly innocent view of the world, told from the perspective of a young boy in 1950s France. First published in 1959, the books went on to sell millions of copies worldwide and were adapted into a live-action theatrical film by Laurent Tirard in 2009. The screen adaptation follows Nicolas as he discovers that his mother is pregnant and his naive panic-stricken response to the news.
Sempé’s path to illustration did not always glitter with success. In fact, he only began his prolific work with The New Yorker in 1978, by which time he was nearly 50 years old. In all, Sempé drew more than 100 covers for the publication, becoming one of its most illustrious contributors.
Many of Sempé’s illustrated covers feature idiosyncrasies that are now beloved as signatures of the artist. Beyond his light linework and colour washes, Sempé often drew scenes from above and from as far away as he could get from the centre of the action while still revealing a story. Cats, portly men and bicycles appeared regularly. In a 2019 interview with The New Yorker, Sempé spoke about his attachment to cycling: “It’s always been one of my dreams – to have a group of friends who go for bike rides in the country every Sunday morning.”
Sempé was born on 17 August, 1932 in Bordeaux. “When I was a kid, heckling was my only distraction,” the illustrator is quoted on the Le Petit Nicolas site. After being expelled from the Modern College of Bordeaux for being undisciplined, he went on to a life of varied careers and paths. He was a handyman for a wine broker, a summer camp monitor and a solider. The army, Sempé explained in a 2006 interview with The New York Times, “was the only place that would give me a job and a bed”.
Throughout his many phases, Sempé was an illustrator and an observer at his core. “The most interesting thing is just to watch the people in the street,” the illustrator shared in the same Times interview. “Nothing is more fun.”
Since the announcement of the artist’s death, illustrators and fans have taken to Twitter to share tributes, among them French president Emmanuel Macron. Patrick Chappatte, fellow cartoonist known for his work in Der Spiegel and The New York Times International wrote: “Sempé was beyond illustration. His world is eternal and universal. It is drawed poetry.”
Phaidon / Jean-Jacques Sempé / Anthea Bell: C’est la Vie!: The Wonderful World of Jean-Jacques Sempé (Copyright © Phaidon, 2014)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.