Arts and Design

Le Petit Nicolas illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé dies aged 89

Jean-Jacques Sempé, who illustrated the much-loved Little Nicolas series of French children’s books, has died aged 89.

As well as his work on Le Petit Nicolas, an idealised vision of childhood in 1950s France which became an international bestseller, Sempé illustrated more New Yorker magazine covers than any other artist.

“The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé died peacefully [on] Thursday evening, 11 August, 2022, in his 89th year, at his holiday residence, surrounded by his wife and his close friends,” said Marc Lecarpentier, his biographer and friend, in a statement to Agence France-Presse.

Sempé, who originally wanted to be a jazz pianist and had a difficult childhood, dropped out of school at 14 before lying about his age to join the army.

Army life didn’t agree with him, however, and he began selling drawings to Parisian newspapers.

While working at a press agency, he befriended cartooning legend René Goscinny of Asterix fame and together in 1959 they invented Little Nicolas.

Today the books are international bestsellers with more than 15m copies sold in 45 countries, and they have been adapted into a popular film and cartoon series.

But in 1959 they went largely unnoticed, and Sempé continued to sell drawings to newspapers to make ends meet, an early career he described as “horrible”.

Art by Jean-Jacques Sempé projected at night on to the Reformation Wall in Geneva, on 24 March 2021.
Art by Jean-Jacques Sempé projected at night on to the Reformation Wall in Geneva, on 24 March 2021. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

It was only in 1978 when he was hired by The New Yorker that he found sustainable success. “I was almost 50 and for the first time in my life, I existed! I had finally found my family,” he said.

Sempé was born near Bordeaux in the village of Pessac in 1932. His paternity was a mystery that he said haunted him. “You don’t know who you are, what you’re built on,” he later said.

He lived in an abusive foster home before his mother took him back, only to subject him to further violence.

“The Nicolas stories were a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine,” Sempé said in 2018.

In his work, Sempé put diminutive characters in an outsized world of soft lines, revealing amusing and sometimes caustic truths about the world without ever resorting to mockery.

But the kindness that Sempé showed his subjects was in contrast to the misery of his own upbringing. “You never get over your childhood,” he revealed well into his 80s, having avoided the subject for decades.

“You try to sort things out, to make your memories prettier. But you never get over it.”

For many years Sempé refused to believe in his own talent, attributing what he had achieved to hard work and sacrifice.

The artist said he could spend as long as three weeks not getting a single drawing right and that he was capable of “not bathing, not sleeping” to finish work on time.


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