Jean-Jacques Sempé, legendary French illustrator of Le Petit Nicolas, dies at age 89

Jean-Jacques Sempé, the French cartoonist beloved for his Le Petit Nicolas (Little Nicolas) series of French children's books, died at age 89 on Thursday.

Marc Lecarpentier, his biographer and friend, said in a statement to Agence France-Presse that Sempé died peacefully, surrounded by his wife and close friends at his holiday residence. French prime minister Elisabeth Borne paid tribute to the artist. "With Sempé, it was sometimes tears in your eyes because you were laughing. Tonight, it's tears of emotion," wrote Borne on Twitter.

Sempé’s sketch-like and elegant style is instantly recognizable. Over the years, he had created or collaborated on more than 30 books, which were translated into 37 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Apart from Le Petit Nicolas – an idealised vision of post-war French childhood, he was also best known for his poster-like covers for The New Yorker, where he drew more than 100 of them since 1978.

Jean-Jacques Sempé

French prime minister Elisabeth Borne paid tribute to Jean-Jacques Sempé

Born in Pessac, southwestern France, in 1932, Sempé had a difficult childhood, which he described later as a misery that haunted him. He grew up in an abusive foster home, and when his mother took him home, he was only subject to further violence.

An distractable and undisciplined student, he was expelled from school at age 14 and had to earn a living by himself. Sempé took exams for the post office, a bank and the railroad, but ended up failing them all. He then tried his hand at various jobs, including selling toothpowder door-to-door and delivering wine by bicycle in the countryside.

At 17, in despair, he joined the army by lying about his age. “That was the only place that would give me a job and a bed,” he explained. But his army life was, too, uneasy. Discovered falsifying his papers, he was thrown in the brig and on resuming duty was sometimes reprimanded for drawing.

Ilustration by Jean-Jacques Sempé

Illustration in Le Petit Nicolas, Little Nicolas dressed in red

Illustration in Le Petit Nicolas, Little Nicolas dressed in red

His change of fortune came in the 1950s, when he moved to Paris after being discharged from the army. Sempé fell in love with the city and never left. He started to take drawing seriously and sell his illustrations to Parisian newspaper to make ends meet.

Initially aspired to be a jazz pianist, he chose to draw because, as he later said, “I had to do something, and I had exhausted all my other options."

His artistic talent had slowly grabbed international attention and in 1952, he won his first award which is given to encourage young amateur artists. A year later, he met the cartoon caption writer René Goscinny in the office of Belgian news agency World Press – a person who would subsequently shape his career.

Art by Jean-Jacques Sempé projected at night on to the Reformation Wall in Geneva

Le Petit Nicolas is an international success

Le Petit Nicolas adapted into film

In 1959, Sempé’s first breakthrough had finally came. After parting company with World Press, he collaborated with Goscinny to create a series of children’s books – Le Petit Nicolas. The first volume was an overnight success, then later came four sequels.

Together the pair bring to a life a mischievous and endearing boy, Little Nicholas, who lives a merry and enriching childhood. With precise brushstrokes imbued with a sense of humour, the books tells an idealized version of childhood in 1950s France – in stark contrast to Sempé’s sorrowful upbringing. “The Nicolas stories were a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine,” said Sempé in 2018.

Nostalgic and innocent, enhanced with the poetic illustrations of Sempé, Le Petit Nicolas was a phenomenal success, having sold five million copies before the series ended in 1964. Today, the books are still international bestsellers, with more than 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, and they have been adapted into films and cartoon series.

Jean-Jacques Sempé drew the cover of The New Yorker

Jean-Jacques Sempé drew the cover of The New Yorker

Jean-Jacques Sempé drew the cover of The New Yorker

His lifelong dream, however, was realized in 1978, when his works were published by The New Yorker, which continues to feature his covers and illustrations.

In simple pen-work and soft watercolour, he captured the fleeting moments and peculiar characteristics of the modern life with meticulous attention to details. Very often, the characters in his paintings are diminutive, surrounded by an oversized landscape – from skyscrapers in New York and bustle of the city to a breezy autumn park and the chill summer beach.

Le Petit Nicolas and covers for The New Yorker aside, Sempé left the world with over 30 illustrated books, where he showed tenderness for his figures and brought laughters to the world. “Vulnerability is la condition humaine, and my vulnerability is reflected in that of the people I draw,” Sempé said. “You must see inside the people you draw to be a good artist — or a good humorist.”