For most of his life, the French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, who has died aged 89, would draw a line at talking publicly about his chaotic and unhappy childhood. He was well into his 80s when he finally admitted that the cheerful schoolboy character who would become his most famous creation – Le Petit Nicolas – was a way of dealing with a period in his life that he described as “a little tragic”.
The adventures of Little Nicolas and his band of oddly named friends, all firmly anchored in 1960s France, were “a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine,” Sempé said. “You never get over your childhood. You try to sort things out, to make your memories prettier. But you never get over it.”
Far from dwelling on that misery, Sempé, as he signed his work and was widely known, was a man who, as Le Monde said, “could make the world giggle”.
Celebrated in France as one of the country’s finest cartoonists, Sempé featured in many national publications but was largely unknown to the English-speaking world until the New Yorker commissioned him to produce a cartoon for its cover in the late 1970s. He would subsequently produce 106 of the magazine’s covers, a figure unrivalled by any other artist.
The adventures of Le Petit Nicolas, the boy Sempé created with René Goscinny, who wrote the Astérix series, have appeared in more than 30 languages, and were adapted for a full-length feature film starring Valérie Lemercier in 2009 (released in the UK in 2012) with a sequel in 2014. An animated film, Le Petit Nicolas – Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux (Little Nicholas – Happy As Can Be), won the Cristal for a feature film award at the Annecy animated film festival in June and will be released in French cinemas in October.
“Le Petit Nicolas is timeless because when we created it it was already out of fashion,” Sempé once said.
Sempé was born at Pessac near Bordeaux, in south-west France, the result of his teenage mother Juliette Marsan’s affair with her boss while she was working as a secretary. Marsan handed her infant son to foster parents but took him back when he was three to live with her and her new husband, Ulysse Sempé, a travelling salesman, who was an alcoholic. Jean-Jacques’ stepfather, who sold anchovies and pickles from a bicycle, would return home from work by way of the local bars, sparking inevitable rows that often ended in violence and flying crockery.
“There were always fights, always arguments, always debts and sudden home moves … I lived with mad people. They were completely mad … my parents, poor things, they did what they could really. I don’t blame them for a second, they got by as best they could …,” Sempé told his biographer Marc Lecarpentier in 2019.
He dropped out of school aged 14 – having already been absent for the previous two years because of the second world war – and later lied about his age to join the French army, saying later it was “the only place that would give me a job and a bed”. His short spell in the military was less than glorious, however, and he admitted he was confined to the barracks prison on more than one occasion for not paying enough attention while on guard duty or other minor misdemeanours. When his real age was discovered he was discharged and he moved permanently to Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life.
He was a lifelong jazz fan, having discovered the French pianist and bandleader Ray Ventura, who helped popularise the genre in France, while listening to the radio aged six, and later Duke Ellington, and had dreamed of being a jazz pianist. Instead, Sempé began drawing aged 12, at first small Mickey Mouse figures, and continued through his teens, sending cartoons to be published in the local paper Sud Ouest while working with little enthusiasm or success as a door-to-door sales person delivering toothpaste powder on his bike, then as a wine broker and a personal valet.
In 1954, he met Goscinny – best known for creating the Astérix series with the artist Albert Uderzo – in the office of the Belgian weekly Le Moustique, which published their work. The pair became friends and began collaborating to produce Petit Nicolas cartoons.
“He [Goscinny] was my first Parisian friend … that’s to say my first friend,” Sempé said later. “He came up with a storyline in which the boy Nicolas told of his life with his friends, all of whom had bizarre names … and off we went. René had found the formula.” The first Le Petit Nicolas story appeared in the Sud Ouest Sunday edition in 1959, with the first book published in 1960 and four further volumes following.
As well as his covers for the New Yorker, Sempé’s cartoons appeared regularly over an entire page in Paris Match and in other national French publications, including L’Express, Le Figaro, Le Nouvel Observateur (L’Obs), Le Parisien and Télérama.
An English edition of the Le Petit Nicolas series, translated by Anthea Bell, appeared in 1978. The books were reissued in 2006 by Phaidon, who also published other English translations of books by Sempé for the first time the same year, including
four collections of drawings covering his career: Nothing Is Simple (Rien n’est Simple, 1962), Everything Is Complicated (Tout Se Complique, 1963), Sunny Spells (Beau Temps, 1999) and Mixed Messages (Multiples Intentions, 2003). Phaidon said they were introducing English readers to one of the “greatest cartoonists they already know”.
The Paris-based British journalist John Lichfield, who interviewed Sempé in 2006, described him as master of the “panoramic cartoon”, drawing from a high or distant viewpoint and depicting rolling landscapes or elaborate townscapes.
“I find the modern world hard to draw,” Sempé told Lichfield. “Even when I draw computers, my friends point out that they are the kinds of computers that disappeared in the 1970s. For me the modern world lacks charm. I am not saying that things were always better in the past. They weren’t. But things looked better, or at least more interesting, to me … ” What is important in a cartoon, he explains, is to “capture the essence of something, not to try to copy it”.
Sempé loved Paris and was a familiar face at renowned Left Bank establishments such as Brasserie Lipp and Café de Flore near his home in St-Germain-des-Près in the 6th arrondissement, where he counted members of the city’s intellectual beau monde including Françoise Sagan, Jacques Tati, Jacques Prévert and Simone Signoret as friends.
In 2018, Sempé was named in the Panama Papers as having an offshore company, sparking an investigation by the French tax authorities into his business affairs.
Sempé died six days before his 90th birthday. Like his most famous creation, in his head he was eternally young. “I have been known to be occasionally sensible, but never adult,” he said.
Two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Martine Gossieaux, whom he married in 2017; and by a daughter, Inga, from his second marriage, to Mette Ivers. A son, Jean-Nicolas, from his first marriage, to Christine Courtois, predeceased him.