Le Rire, 22 July 1899

Émile Cohl is one of the earliest pioneers of animation, along with John Stuart Blackton. Together they laid the foundations of the medium in the early 1900s, with simple caricatures and stick figures. Cohl goes down in history as the creator of the first genuine fully animated cartoon: 'Fantasmagorie' (1908). He was also the first to adapt a comic strip into a regular animated film series. Cohl was furthermore a well-known caricaturist in his day and made a few comics himself.

He was born in 1857 in Paris as Émile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet. His father was a salesman in rubber, while his mother sew linen. His family often had to struggle to get money together and he rarely saw his father. In 1863, when the boy was six years old, his mother passed away. He was sent off to the École Professionelle de Pantin – better known as the boarding school Institute Vaudron. He discovered he had talent for drawing, but the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) pushed his life into a different direction. His father's factory was forced to close down and Cohl was sent to a less expensive school: the École Turgot. He found a new pastime in the marionette theatres of Guignol and by working as a political caricaturist. During the Prussian siege of Paris he was able to give local citizens much escapism through these occupations. Cohl worked as an apprentice for a jeweler, a maritime insurance broker before eventually working for a philatelist.

Still, caricaturing remained one of his hobbies. In 1878 he became an assistant of André Gill, who was already one of the most famous caricaturists in France. All throughout his life Cohl remained loyal to his mentor, even when Gill was institutionalized and deserted by all his other friends. Around the same time the young caricaturist adopted his pen name "Émile Cohl". The young cartoonist quickly made a name for himself when he drew two cartoons targeting French president Patrice MacMahon. The first one, 'Aveugle par Ac-Sedan' (1878), depicted the politician as a beggar posing off as being blind. The word "Ac-Sedan" was a pun on the French word "accident" and referenced the Battle of Sedan (1870), where France was defeated by Prussia. MacMahon had been present during this battle and didn't like the implication that his country's defeat was his fault. Cohl was already walking on hot coals by caricaturing the French president, as MacMahon had made it a punishable offense to ridicule him. On 11 October 1879 Cohl was fined and condemned to ten days in jail. But in the end it was the disgraced cartoonist who had the last laugh. As always the scandal made Cohl instantly famous and since MacMahon was already so impopular few people chose his side. Only three months later the president resigned in disgrace.

Un Drame, by Emile Cohl (1908)

Under France's new president, Jules Grévy, censorship was lifted. Cohl became a respected member of a Parisian artistic group named the "Hydropathes" and was chief editor of their magazine L'Hydropathe, first published on 28 October 1879. His financial luck also changed for the better when he enherited his late father's wealth. Together with former architect Edouard Norés, Cohl wrote two theatrical plays, 'Plus de Têtes Chauves' (1881) and 'Auteur Par Amour' (1882), which nevertheless flopped. In 1882 the Hydropathes disbanded themselves and Cohl got acquainted with another artistic group: the Incoherents. He became editor-in-chief of their official magazine La Nouvelle Lune and contributed many caricatures. The group was fond of absurd comedy and deliberately drew in a crude, infantile style. It gave them cult appeal and their public exhibitions attracted a lot of spectators. When the novelty died off in 1888 Cohl moved to London. He had prepared this voyage for years by learning English. For almost a decade he published in the magazine Pick Me Up.


Comic strip by Emile Cohl for Polichinelle, 9 May 1897

In 1896 Cohl returned to Paris, where he started a new career as a writer and illustrator. He contributed to many magazines, most notably L'Illustré National, where he made several text comics from 1898 on. The most shameful moment of Cohl's career occured when he supported the conviction of French-Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus who was disgraced from the army over the accusation of treason. In reality Dreyfus was innocent of the matter and a victim of antisemitism. Cohl made several cartoons tar-and-feathering Dreyfus as a traitor, in high contrast with Raoul Barré who actually defended Dreyfus. Among the other magazines to which Cohl provided cartoons and comic strips were Polichinelle and Le Rire.

L’homme aux trois visagesL’homme aux trois visagesL’homme aux trois visages
L'Homme aux trois visages (Le Rire, 23 April 1899)

At the turn of the 19th century into the 20th Cohl made yet another career change, despite being already 50 years old. In 1907 he became a scriptwriter for the film company Gaumont. Apart from penning stories he also made some animated special effects for some of the live-action films. Cohl was greatly inspired by animation pioneer John Stuart Blackton who'd already amazed audiences with early humorous animated shorts like 'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' (1906) and 'The Haunted Hotel' (1907). At the time the medium was still in its infancy and no books were available on how to animate cartoons. Cohl therefore had to study the craft by literally examining Blackton's pictures frame-by-frame. In 1908 Cohl made his animated debut with 'Fantasmagorie' (1908), a picture where crude stick-figures meet all kinds of morphing objects. It shared a similar look with Blackton's chalk animation, but the main difference was that Blackton's characters were actually drawn on a chalkboard and then filmed, while Cohl's animation was drawn on hundred pieces of paper. In this sense 'Fantasmagorie' is widely considered to be the first genuine fully animated cartoon. The picture was a success with audiences and thus paved the way for more similar animated shorts: 'Le Cauchemar du Fantoche' ('The Puppet's Nightmare', 1908), and 'Un Drame Chez Les Fantoches' ('A Puppet Drama', 1908).

Le Cauchemar de Fantoche
Le Cauchemar de Fantoche

In 1910 Cohl joined another film company, Pathé, where he continued making special effects for a series of live-action comedies starring Lucien Cazalis, better known as Jobard. 'Le Tout Petit Faust' (1910) was the first marionette film, 'Le Peintre Néo-Impressioniste' (1910) was an early colour animated film, while the animated short 'La Bataille d'Austerlitz' (1910) showed ambition by trying to visualize Napoleon's famous victory during the Battle of Austerlitz. In September 1911 he moved to Eclipse, but was allowed to make films for other studios too, like Éclair. He even left for the United States to create animated cartoons based on George McManus' popular newspaper comic 'The Newlyweds' (1912) for Éclair. This was effectively the first animated series based on a comic strip. Previously most adaptations of comics had been done as live-action films. The series were quite a success in the States, but unfortunately a series of tragedies occured. In 1914 Cohl moved back to Paris because of family matters. While he was there a fire destroyed most of Éclair's films, including Cohl's work. Today only two of them survive. Cohl didn't despair and kept making new films but a few months later the First World War broke out. As the German army occupied Paris, Cohl was unable to send his pictures to America. He continued making newsreel inserts for Éclair and was approached by illustrator Benjamin Rabier to make an animated series based on his comics characters. The series, 'Les Dessins Animés de Benjamin Rabier' ran throughout most of the 1910s and met with great local success, as distributed by the Agence Générale Cinematographique (AGC). The franchise was eventually put to a halt when Cohl objected to the fact that he wasn't credited for his work in advertisements. Rabier then continued the series on his own. Around the same time Cohl also made another animated series based on a popular French comic strip, 'Les Pieds Nickelés' by Louis Forton. Once again this series was prematurely discontinued as Allied Force liberated Paris in 1918. Cohl volunteered for the United States Air Service Supply.

Caricatures from Parisian intellectuals, around 1893
Caricatures of Parisian intellectuals, around 1893

After the First World War Cohl left Éclair and spent his final decades poor and almost forgotten. In the spring of 1937 his beard caught fire when it came in touch with a candle on his desk. He spent a few months in a hospital while film journalist René Jeanne paid his medical bill by organizing a benefit screening of his work. In 1938 Cohl passed away, dying the same day another legendary French film pioneer gave his last sigh:  Georges Méliès, creator of the classic short 'Le Voyage Dans La Lune' (1902).

Émile Cohl enjoyed a long career in many different graphic fields, but will always be remembered for his pioneering work in the field of animation. Whether as a complete animator or a special effects-animator for live-action films his work definitely broke new ground. Unfortunately many of Cohl's 300 in total films are lost today, but the ones that remain still prove a testament of his cinematographic accomplishments. He inspired early animators like Winsor McCay, Raoul Barré, John Randolph Bray and Paul Grimault, some of which directly copied Cohl's ideas. Cohl lived to see the medium he helped giving shape being further developed into a genuine artistic movement. It was therefore that cartoonist Frick made an "in memoriam" cartoon featuring Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and the Fleischer Brothers' Betty Boop and Popeye mourning over Cohl's death. Cohl's name lives on in a Parisian square, the academy École Émile Cohl and the annual animation award Prix Émile Cohl.

In memoriam illustration by Frick
In memoriam illustration, published a week after Cohl's death in 1938.

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