The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jean-Jacques Sempé, whimsical illustrator of New Yorker covers, dies at 89

Jean-Jacques Sempé in 2011. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)
7 min

A lone cyclist crosses the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain. A black cat sits contently on the knobby end of a banister. A solitary summer beachgoer does a handstand at dawn.

Each drawing is shown from a distance, as if you were lucky enough to stumble upon a private little treasure and pause to smile at life. This was the world crafted by French artist and illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé for more than six decades — whimsical, playful and at times ironical — in anthologies, the popular “Le Petit Nicolas” (Little Nicolas) series and more than 100 covers for the New Yorker magazine.

“What I like so much about cartoons is the way they can express certain ideas discreetly,” Mr. Sempé was quoted as saying in a 2014 book, “C’est La Vie! The Wonderful World of Jean-Jacques Sempé.” “It is a way of talking about yourself without really seeming to do so.”

Mr. Sempé, who died Aug. 11 at 89, said he was enraptured as a boy listening to jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie and how their music could convey feelings without words. Mr. Sempé appeared to borrow some of the same sensibilities. He used captions and written 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 high above or across grand cityscapes of New York or Paris, his two main points of reference. The hard edges of reality were pushed aside. What was left were charming reminders to pay attention to the special moments when they come along.

His New Yorker cover for the Jan. 5, 1987, issue was a chandelier-eye view of two couples still dancing after a New Year’s party is over. Students in a dance class circle a piano, as seen through a window across a city street, for the Jan. 5, 2015, cover. For the Aug. 21, 2006, issue: A smiling man walks through a park, viewed from the treetops, with his collar undone and tie flapping in the breeze as if to celebrate freedom from the grind.

Cyclists were a recurring theme — Mr. Sempé liked to bike — as were the juxtaposed scenes of lone figures amid huge backdrops. A concert pianist walks across a vast stage toward a grand piano on a 1999 New Yorker cover. (Mr. Sempé entitled it “Slight Anxiety.”) A cover in 1979 has riders on a tandem bike rolling through a grove of trees.

France pays homage to beloved cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé

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

“If God was a cartoonist, this is how His drawings would look like,” wrote Mexican political cartoonist Francisco “Paco” Calderón.

But Mr. Sempé could draw with a bite, too. A 1963 panel shows a stage-prop tree that just flattened an actor. There were unruly schoolchildren and stodgy teachers, frustrated Parisian traffic cops, hapless tourists and self-absorbed intellectuals. When he depicted cats, however, they were always content and masters of their domain.

Mr. Sempé gave most of his work, especially portrayals of Paris, a heavy veneer of nostalgia: the city’s traditional mansard roofs, roads full of Citroëns and baguettes peeking from shopping bags.

“For me, the modern world lacks charm,” he told the Independent in 2006. “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.”

Childhood doodler

Jean-Jacques Sempé was born Aug. 17, 1932, in Passac, France, outside Bordeaux. He described doodling and daydreaming as his boyhood passions — partly as an escape from a turbulent family life that included a violent and erratic stepfather.

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

He was expelled from school at 14 for failing to follow the rules and tried to land apprentice-level civil servant jobs, but couldn’t pass the tests. With few options, he peddled tooth powder as a teenage salesman and managed to sell some cartoons to French newspapers, signing his work as DRO as an approximate phonetic English translation for the French “dessiner,” or to draw.

It wasn’t enough to live on, however. He enrolled in the French army at age 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 military after the ruse about his age was discovered. The next stop was Paris to try his hand as a self-taught illustrator in the comic book industry. His natural talent was recognized with a newcomer’s award in 1952, which opened doors for work in magazines such as Paris Match.

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

The first book based on Nicholas stories was published in 1959 and later gained an international audience in the United States and elsewhere — with readers amused by Nicolas’s childhood views on the oddities of adults. Movie adaptations followed.

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

In 2004, Goscinny’s daughter Anne discovered dozens of unpublished Nicolas stories 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 daughter Inga Sempé from his second marriage, to Mette Ivers. His first marriage, to Christina Courtois, also ended in divorce. Complete information on 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 just his last name — lived and worked Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. “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 was his early 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 its pages.

Mr. Sempé first cover appeared in August 1978 — a half-man/half-bird in a business suit perched on a window sill, apparently hesitating to take flight.

The New Yorker’s art editor, Françoise Mouly, said the magazine plans to reissue one of Mr. Sempé's illustrations for the Sept. 5 edition. It will be his 114th cover, Mouly told Agence France-Presse.

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

“Half of my colleagues would say to me, 'That’s me, that’s me,’ ” Mouly said.