France Pays Homage to Beloved New Yorker Cartoonist Sempé

August 21, 2022

Family, friends and fans have paid tribute to French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, whose simple line drawings tinted with humor graced the covers of The New Yorker magazine and granted him international acclaim.

A funeral Mass for Sempé — affectionately known as J.J. in the United States — took place Friday at the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. Friends and relatives honored the artist, who died last week at age 89, and his legacy. A private funeral was held at the city’s renowned Montparnasse cemetery.

Outside the church, a poster of Sempé’s first New Yorker cover stood next to a black-and-white portrait of him festooned with flowers. The Aug. 14, 1978 cover depicted the façade of a New York building, with a bald-headed bird with glasses in a suit perched on a high-up window and enlightened by pale yellow rays of sunshine.

The drawing epitomizes the artist’s gentle ironic universe, sublimated by vivid watercolors and a breezy and seemingly effortless style. In his native France, he found fame with illustrations for the classic “Le Petit Nicolas” (“Little Nicholas”) children’s book series, and went on to specialize in drawings about life’s simple pleasures.

“It takes me a very long time, weeks or even months for me to get it right,” Sempé told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview. “You get thinking about something that little by little starts taking shape in your mind.”

Sempé captured the thin, fashionable haute bourgeoisie of Paris and mustachioed, beret-wearing townsfolk, all bearing hallmark hulking noses and replete with bicycles, baguettes, books and tractors. But he also found inspiration in The New Yorker’s hometown, the magazine noted in an homage published on Instagram.

“I love the colors in New York,” he said. “They’re dynamic: bright yellows, greens, reds, and blues. Paris, where I live, is beautiful but it’s always gray. I love Paris, too, but it’s not the same.”

He drew more than 100 covers for The New Yorker after meeting the magazine’s art director in Paris in 1978. Despite its unequivocal Frenchness, Sempé’s work touched a universal nerve, portraying culture-crossing human follies and neuroses.

“He marked several generations. You can’t find in the U.S. a reader of the print version of the New Yorker who doesn’t know who Sempé is,” Francoise Mouly, the publication’s current art director, said in an interview with French newspaper Libération.

Mouly praised his “universal way to address the point of view of individuals in daily life, common situations” in drawings that spoke to people from Paris to New York.

A 71-year-old French artist known as Gabs said Sempé inspired him to become a cartoonist.

“Sempé embodies Frenchness, the ways he depicted Paris, France’s little villages and scenes of daily life,” and “a form of innocence and joy,” Gabs said at the funeral.

French novelist Benoit Dutertre gave a poignant speech recalling his beloved friend who enjoyed biking and having a coffee in Left Bank cafés while smoking a cigarette, despite being sick during his last years.

“With a sip of humor, he was a great storyteller of France’s evolving society,” he said.

Born Aug. 17, 1932, in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Sempé briefly followed the steps of his father — who worked as a traveling salesman — as a bicycle delivery boy for a wine merchant, then joined the army and was sent to Paris for basic training.

There, he canvassed newspaper editors to persuade them to publish his drawings, he said in his autobiography. One series of drawings, entitled “Le Petit Nicolas” and featuring a mischievous but goodhearted schoolboy, appeared in a Belgian paper. It would later grow into the book series that proved Sempé’s most enduring success.

Anne Goscinny — former wife of Rene Goscinny, the author of “Le Petit Nicolas” who died in 1977 — addressed Sempé himself at the church service, saying: “You created le Petit Nicolas. You made all childhoods smile. Today you meet again with (Goscinny), I’m sure of it, and I hear you laugh until you weep.”

In 1962, Sempé published his first collection of drawings, “Rien n’est simple” (“Nothing Is Simple”). Some of his more than 40 books have been published in English in the U.S. He is survived by two children, Nicolas and Catherine.


Former AP reporter Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.



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