Sempé, genius of the drawing of humor, goldsmith of a tender poetry and father of "Little Nicolas"

Sempé, genius of the drawing of humor, goldsmith of a tender poetry and father of “Little Nicolas”


The designer Jean-Jacques Sempé died Thursday August 11, 2022 at the age of 89. This immense draftsman has put into images the adventures of the Little Nicholasimagined with René Goscinny, and enchanted the world with his funny and poetic drawings, published in the press and collected in albums. From 1978, a hundred of his drawings made the cover of the newspaper the new yorker.

Last week, Paris Match published a drawing of Sempé with premonitory accents by its caption: “Remember not to forget me.”

A “natural” child born on August 17, 1932 in Bordeaux, Jean-Jacques Sempé grew up in the southwest with his two sisters, his mother and his stepfather, “Monsieur Sempé”, a sales representative. The atmosphere is not looking good in this house where there is a lot of shouting, and where books are scarce. A “dismal childhood”he confided later. The boy takes refuge in school, and in books, which he finds right and left, as well as in music,

After having interrupted his schooling during the war, he began to draw at the age of 12, managing to sell a few drawings to the press which he signed Dro (draw) while working as a bicycle delivery boy, a toothpaste powder representative and then a wine broker. . It was in 1951, in the newspaper South West, that he publishes his first drawing signed Sempé.

In 1954, Sempé met René Goscinny. Together, they give birth to Petit Nicolas, inspired by the wine merchant of the same name. The daily adventures of this little boy first appear in the form of a comic strip, one gag per page, published weekly in the Belgian weekly The mosquito. But the adventures of Little Nicholas in the form of comic strips stop quite quickly, to be reborn a few years later in the form of an illustrated tale, first published in the columns of South West Sunday. “I hate comics. I don’t know how to do it, and then it doesn’t interest me at all”, confided Sempé in 2020 to France culture.

“Nicolas looks like all the children I draw in general, or the way I imagine children are made”


to Pierre Dumayet (Readings for all, 1961)

The success is immediate and the first album appears the following year. The stories are then published in the magazine Pilot. In ten years of collaboration, Sempé illustrates, with nearly a thousand drawings, more than 200 stories written by Goscinny. Four albums were released between 1960 and 1964. From 2004, the Untold Stories du Petit Nicolas are published by IMAV editions by Anne Goscinny, and are very successful.

The adventures of Little Nicolas have been translated in around forty countries around the world and were adapted for the cinema by Laurent Tirard in the year of the fiftieth anniversary: Le Petit Nicolas in 2009 will be followed in 2014 by Little Nicolas’ vacation.

Sempé is also the father of Marcellin Caillou, Raoul Tabourin and Mr Lambert and he published thousands of drawings in the press from 1953, first in Laughter, Black and White, Paris herethen in Saturday night Where France Sunday. He became known to the general public at the end of the 1950s with his drawings published in Paris Match and Pilot (from its launch in 1959), but also abroad in Punch and Squire (1957). He then worked on The Expressto Figaroto New Observerand from the 1980s to Teleramawhich publishes its albums in preview every summer.

From 1962, he begins with Nothing is easyto publish an album each year with Denoël editions, bringing together his drawings. Nearly thirty albums were released between 1962 and 2010.

Often a plate accompanied by a short text, fine line in ink and sometimes watercolor, the drawings of Sempé are recognizable among all. Unbeatable for translating an atmosphere, an atmosphere or even emotions, his drawings arouse laughter, tenderness and reflection. The designer sketched life in all its forms, with tenderness, and always with a touch of humor and great poetry.

An indefatigable observer of his time, he signed drawings that testified to life in society from the 1950s to the present day. A genius in decorating, he knew how to translate the architecture and the gigantism of modern cities as well as the joyful abundance of a springtime countryside. He knew how to sketch loneliness, crowds, absurdity, shyness as well as vanity, love as much as couple quarrels, and he knew how to draw childhood like no one else, perhaps because as he said , “he had happened to become, at times, reasonable but never adult”.

Grand Prize for Literature from the city of Bordeaux in 1987, named Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters in 2006, married twice, Jean-Jacques Sempé had a son and a daughter. A major exhibition, “Sempé in freedom, itinerary of a humorous designer”, was dedicated to him in 2019 at the Bordeaux Navy Museum for his seventy-year career.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *