Jean-Jacques Sempé, who illustrated the much-loved French children’s book series Little Nicolas, has died aged 89.
In addition to his work on Le Petit Nicolas, an idealized vision of childhood in 1950s France that became an international bestseller, Sempé has illustrated more New York magazine covers than any other artist.
“The designer Jean-Jacques Sempé died peacefully [on] Thursday evening, August 11, 2022, in his 89th year, in his vacation residence, surrounded by his wife and close friends,” said Marc Lecarpentier, his biographer and friend, in a press release 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.
However, military life did not suit him and he began to sell drawings to Parisian newspapers.
While working in a press agency, he befriended cartoon legend René Goscinny of Asterix and together, in 1959, they invented Petit Nicolas.
Today, the books are international bestsellers with over 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, and they have been adapted into a series of popular films and cartoons.
But in 1959 they went largely unnoticed and Sempé continued to sell cartoons to newspapers to make ends meet, a start to his career which he described as “horrible”.
It wasn’t until 1978, when he was hired by The New Yorker, that he found lasting success. “I was almost 50 years old 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 family before his mother took him back, to subject him to further violence.
“Nicolas’ stories were a way to revisit the misery I endured growing up while making sure everything was okay,” Sempé said in 2018.
In his work, Sempé places tiny figures in an oversized world with smooth lines, revealing amusing and sometimes caustic truths about the world without ever resorting to derision.
But Sempé’s kindness to his subjects contrasted with the misery of his own upbringing. “You never get over your childhood,” he revealed well into his 80s, after avoiding the subject for decades.
“You try to sort things out, to make your memories more beautiful. But we 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 go up to three weeks not getting a single drawing done and was able to “not bathe, not sleep” to complete his work on time.