French cartoonist Sempe, famous for whimsical New Yorker covers, dies age 89

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Issued on: 11/08/2022 – 22:11

French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe, who won international acclaim with a series of more than 100 drawings for the covers of The New Yorker magazine, has died at the age of 89. 


His cartoons often showed small figures set in large urban landscapes, drawn in delicate lines and offering gentle social commentary on modern life.

“Tender irony, the delicatesse of intelligence, the jazz: we will not be able to forget Sempe. We will sorely miss his view of the world and his pencil,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter.

One of France’s most famous visual artists, Sempe drew scenes of daily life in elaborate detail, usually from an overhead or faraway perspective and in pastel colours.

Born Aug. 17, 1932 in a village near Bordeaux, Sempe did not complete high school, drifted from job to job and briefly joined the army before moving to Paris in the 1950s and starting to earn a living with his drawings.

He had his first success in the late 1950s with the “Le Petit Nicolas” series of children’s books about a schoolboy, with Asterix writer Rene Goscinny.

His international breakthrough came in the late 1970s, when he started drawing covers for The New Yorker, sketching city life as seen by an outsider looking in, his characters often lost in big crowds or set against wide panoramas.

Most of his drawings had little or no dialogue, but short captions often subtly hint at the characters’ worries or hopes.

“There is a lot of silent emotion in the drawings of Sempe,” Le Monde cartoonist Plantu said on France Inter radio. Sempe’s favourite subjects were children, trees, cats, musicians and life in Paris and New York. His cartoons rarely used text to make wry comment on big-city life.

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A November 2015 New Yorker cover shows a wealthy-looking older couple going for an autumn stroll on a New York sidewalk as two uniformed doormen shovel dead leaves in front of them to create the illusion of a walk in the forest.

People riding bicycles were one of Sempe’s favourite subjects.

“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. In real life, it never happened. I kept trying to organize it but everyone was always too busy to slow down for it,” he told The New Yorker in a 2019 interview.


As well as his work on “Le Petit Nicolas”, an idealised vision of childhood in 1950s France which became an international best-seller, Sempe also illustrated more New Yorker magazine covers than any other artist.

“The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe died peacefully (Thursday) evening, August 11 (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 AFP.

Sempe, who originally wanted to be a jazz pianist and had a difficult childhood, dropped out of school aged 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 and while working at a press agency befriended cartooning legend Rene Goscinny of “Asterix” fame.

Together in 1959 they invented “Little Nicolas”.

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

Today the books are international best-sellers with more than 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, and have been adapted into a popular film and cartoon series.

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

It was only in 1978 when he was hired by The New Yoker 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.