Le Petit Nicolas, by Sempé
Le Petit Nicolas - 'Avant Noël, c'est chouette!'.

Jean-Jacques Sempé is a French cartoonist and illustrator, whose crowded cartoon panels give gentle commentary on the absurdity and banality of everyday city life. Since the 1950s, his drawings - including sequential ones - have appeared in publications throughout France, including Sud-Ouest Dimanche, Ici Paris and Paris Match, but he also gained fame in the USA as cover illustrator for The New Yorker. Together with writer René Goscinny, Sempé created the charming adventures of 'Le Petit Nicolas' ('Little Nicolas', 1954-1965) - originally as a comic strip, then as an illustrated text feature - starring a Parisian school boy telling about his everyday life.

Early life and career
Jean-Jacques Sempé was born in 1929 in Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux. With constantly fighting parents, Sempé had a troubled childhood. He found refuge in his daydreams, art, pulp detective novels and the jazz music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ray Ventura. A goofer at school, he was expelled at age fourteen and had to earn a living by working, for instance selling toothpaste from door to door and delivering wine for a Gironde winery. By presenting himself as a student at the Bordeaux Academy of Fine Arts, which he wasn't, Sempé bluffed his way into the French regional press. The first magazine that bought some of his humorous drawings was Sud-Ouest Dimanche, the Sunday supplement of the Sud-Ouest newspaper. Since U.S. cartoonists like Sam Cobean and Saul Steinberg were his main inspirations, Sempé initially chose the pen name "DRO" by simply looking up the English translation of the French word "dessiner" ("to draw"). His first cartoons were printed in April 1951. Still, working as a cartoonist was far from lucrative. By lying about his age, Sempé managed to join the army, which he saw as "the only place that would give me a job and a bed". The military wasn't his cup of tea either, as the young cartoonist was regularly disciplined for drawing during guard duty.

Cartoonist in Paris
After his discharge, Jean-Jacques Sempé decided to try his luck in Paris, where he eventually settled in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. This step was probably inspired by Yvan Le Louarn - AKA Chaval - another Bordeaux cartoonist who was beginning to make the grade in the Parisian press. Now signing with his own last name, Sempé's main inspirations remained the American cartoonists from The New Yorker magazine, but his work also showed influences from the cartoonist André François and - with regard to tenderness and observation humor - the French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Through the World Presse agency, Sempé was asked to make New Yorker-style spot illustrations and watercolored cover drawings for the Belgian weekly Le Moustique. By 1953, Sempé was also publishing his drawings in the Parisian humor weekly Le Rire and the celebrity news magazines Noir et Blanc and Ici Paris, followed in 1954 by publications in the tabloid magazines Samedi Soir and France Dimanche.


'Le Petit Nicolas' comic strip from Le Moustique.

Le Petit Nicolas in Le Moustique (1954-1956)
In Belgium, Sempé's first appearance on the cover of Le Moustique was on 30 November 1952. About sixty cover illustrations followed. Some of his 1954 drawings featured a little boy, which Sempé called Nicolas, after an advertisement for a famous wine brand. Charmed by the character, his agency requested Sempé to turn his creation into a comic strip. Since he had little to no affection with comics - let alone any experience in making them - he asked another Paris-based World Presse artist to write his feature: René Goscinny, who for the occasion assumed the pen name Agostini. Ever since their first meeting in 1953, Sempé and Goscinny hit it off. Both new in Paris, Sempé later called Goscinny his first true friend. Goscinny had spent several years in the USA, where he had become acquainted with several important cartoonists. Sempé in turn told his new friend many childhood memories from Bordeaux, which formed the basis for episodes of 'Le Petit Nicolas'. The 'Petit Nicolas' incarnation in comic strip format was however short-lived. Starting on 25 September 1955, the feature ran for 28 episodes until 20 May 1956, when World Presse fired René Goscinny. Out of loyalty, Sempé left the agency too.

Le Petit Nicolas in Sud-Ouest and Pilote (1959-1965)
Over the next couple of years, Sempé continued to expand his workload in the Parisian press, until his very first client - Sud-Ouest Dimanche - commissioned the return of 'Le Petit Nicolas' in the form of illustrated text serials. Sempé and Goscinny resumed their collaboration and on 30 March 1959, the first installment, 'L'Oeuf de Pâques' ('The Easter Egg'), was printed. From 17 December 1959 on, 'Le Petit Nicolas' ran simultaneously in Pilote, the new comic magazine co-founded by Goscinny. This new text format turned 'Le Petit Nicolas' into an overnight success. Goscinny wrote the narratives in the first person, making them the naïve everyday life accounts of a Parisian boy, the smallest in his class. Nostalgic and innocent, enhanced with the poetic illustrations of Sempé, the stories form an idealized depiction of childhood in 1950s France. Even though the series is generally seen as children's literature, the original target audiences were adults (Sud-Ouest) and adolescents (Pilote). Many of the narratives were inspired by Sempé's childhood experiences of spending holidays in school colonies and playing soccer with friends. Goscinny expanded Nicolas' world with colorful secondary characters, such as the boy's gluttonous best friend Alceste and several classmates, including the lazy Clotaire, the dreamy Jochaim and the hothead Maixent.


'Le Petit Nicolas'.

Le Petit Nicolas - success
Between 1960 and 1964, the publishing house Denoël released the 'Petit Nicolas' stories in five annual book collections. The fourth book, 'Le Petit Nicolas et les Copains' (1963), won René Goscinny the 1964 Prix Alphonse-Allais, a prestigious French literary award. Years after Goscinny's death, the remaining Sud-Ouest stories of 'Le Petit Nicolas' were collected in book format for the first time in the 'Histoires inédites du Petit Nicolas' series (2004-2009), supervised by Sempé and the writer's daughter, Anne Goscinny. The third and final installment, 'Le Ballon et Autres Histoires inédites' (2009), featured new watercolor illustrations by Sempé. These books were also reprinted as pocket books in the 'Folio Junior' collection at Gallimard Jeunesse, marking the first 'Petit Nicolas' publications aimed directly at children. After their national success, the 'Le Petit Nicolas' books were translated in many languages, including Russian, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Hebrew. In most languages, the boy's name remains the same or is turned into a localized spelling of "Nicolas". Only in Danish he is known as 'Jeppe' and in Turkish as 'Pitircik'. In November 2012, IMAV Éditions released a special Latin edition, 'Le Petit Nicolas en latin - Pullus Nicolellus'. In the following year, IMAV began publishing editions of 'Le Petit Nicolas' in all the 75 official French regional languages.

'Le Petit Nicolas' additionally inspired several movie adaptations, for instance two live-action films by Laurent Tirard: 'Le Petit Nicolas' (2009) and 'Les Vacances du Petit Nicolas' (2014). A new live-action film, this time by Julien Rappeneau, appeared in 2021: 'Le Trésor du Petit Nicolas'. Starting in September 2009, two seasons of an animated TV series based on 'Le Petit Nicolas', created by Arnaud Bouron, were broadcast on M6. Outside of the official franchise, Goscinny and Sempé's series inspired the satirical books 'Le Petit Nicolas, Ségolène et les Copains' (2007) and its sequels 'Le Petit Nicolas à l'Élysée' (2007), 'Nicolas à de Petits Soucis' (2008) and 'Le Petit Monde de Nicolas' (2009), in which the French President Nicolas Sarkozy is caricatured as a school boy amidst child versions of other French politicians. Published by Du Rocher Éditions, the books were credited to "Gospé & Sempinny". While the identity of the writer remains unknown, the illustrator of the Sarkozy parodies was Mario Alberti.


Sempé covers for The New Yorker issues from 1988 and 1999.

National and international success
During the 1950s, Jean-Jacques Sempe's cartoons appeared in more and more magazines, for instance Constellation (1954-1960), Almanach Vermot (1955-1960) and Marie-Claire (1959-1964). A prominent new client was the illustrated weekly Paris Match, for which Sempé made page-filling cartoons with ornate captions, first between 1957 and 1967, then again between 1988 and 2000. Over the next couple of decades, drawings by Sempé ran in Télérama, Le Nid, Lui, L'Express, Le Nouvel Observateur and Je Bouquine. In the second half of the 1950s, he also found success abroad, with publications in Punch (UK) and Esquire (USA). In 1978, he was asked to submit cover drawings to The New Yorker magazine, which he did for over forty years, making over a hundred contributions. Besides magazine cartoons, Jean-Jacques Sempé also illustrated posters, advertisements, postcards and stickers, as well as books by William Makepeace Thackeray ('The Book of Snobs', 1963), Graham Cleverley ('Managers and Magic', 1971), and the two physicists Richard L. Garwin and Georges Charpak ('Megawatts + Megatons', 2001). Following the success of 'Le Petit Nicolas', publisher Denoël has also released over 25 book collections with Sempé cartoons, starting with 'Rien N'est Simple' (1962), 'Tout Se Complique' (1963) and 'Sauve Qui Peut' (1964).


From: 'Quelques philosophes': "I used to get up and do something straight away. Now I tear myself away very slowly from under the covers, I drag, I think, I hesitate, then, with a leap, I go back to bed."

Style
While living in Paris, Sempé spent much time in the Jardin du Luxembourg, observing the people from the surrounding bourgeois neighborhoods. They appear in many of his drawings, strolling casually through life in crowded streets or parks, seen from a bird's eye view. By contrasting the often pretentious dialogue of his miniature characters with imposing surroundings, Sempé playfully puts human behavior into perspective. However, his  commentary is poetic in nature, and never judging or pushy. Sempé's crowds are filled with diverse and distinctive characters, but the cartoonist seems to have a preference for little balding men and shapeless females. Rarely drawing from life, Jean-Jacques Sempé's main source of inspiration is his own imagination. Even in old age, he maintained the use of making a drawing every day, although not always meant for publications.

His work has very little recurring characters, with the notable exceptions of Little Nicolas and Mister Lambert, who was the title character in Sempé's fifth cartoon book, 'Monsieur Lambert' (1965). Following a sequential narrative, the book shows a glimpse of life in a small Parisian bistro, where mister Lambert is one of the regulars. It is one of the few works in Sempé's oeuvre that makes use of speech balloons in addition to the text captions. Mister Lambert and the bistro returned in 'L'Ascension Sociale de Monsieur Lambert' ("The Social Rise of Mr. Lambert", 1975), a follow-up first serialized in Charlie Mensuel magazine. His 1969 book 'Marcellin Caillou' has a little boy that constantly blushes for a main character, and 'Raoul Taburin (une bicyclette à propos de son père)' (1995) stars the owner of a bike shop.


'L'Ascension Sociale de Monsieur Lambert' (Charlie Mensuel #72, 1975).

Family in arts
Sempé's first wife was the painter Christina Courtois, and his second wife the painter/illustrator Mette Ivers (1933), with whom he had his daughter, Inga Sempé (1968), a designer and constructor of technical items. Since 2017, he is married to the gallery owner Martine Gossieaux, who is also the cartoonist's agent.

Influence and recognition
With a career spanning over half a century, Jean-Jacques Sempé is one of the most widely recognized French cartoonists. His fame reaches far outside the French borders thanks to the many translated editions of 'Le Petit Nicolas', and his watercolor cartoons for prominent international magazines, most notably The New Yorker. Sempé has been an important influence on many cartoonists and illustrators. In his home country he inspired Benjamin Bachelier, François Boucq, Elric, Pierre Le-Tan, Joann Sfar, Voutch and Zanzim. In Belgium, elements of Sempé's style and humor can be found in the work of Gal, André Geerts, Philippe Geluck and Jean-Louis Lejeune, while in the United Kingdom Ronald Searle, Quentin Blake and Don Roberts have named him an inspiration. A Swiss artist influenced by his style is Zep. In the Americas Sempé has found admirers in Canada (Anne Villeneuve) and Argentina (Becs, Quino). He also left an impression on Chinese cartoonists, such as Rao Pingru and Alfonso Wong. The notability of his cartoons also earned him prominent fans outside the world of cartoons, resulting in meetings with his own childhood heroes Jacques Tati and Count Basie. The French singer Anne Sylvestre honored the cartoonist in a 1986 song, 'Comme un personnage de Sempé' ("Like a Sempé character").

Since a first 1968 exposition with art from his book 'Saint-Tropez', Sempé's drawings have been exhibited throughout France. Notable shows were career retrospectives in Caen (1984), Paris (2011-2012), Rueil-Malmaison (2019-2020) and Bordeaux (2019). Jean-Jacques Sempé has been honored with the 1987 Grand Literary Prize of the city of Bordeaux and the 2003 Prix Alphonse-Allais, awarded by the Académie Alphonse Allais. In 2006, Sempé was named Commander in the French Order of the Arts and the Letters. In Germany, he was awarded the 2008 e.o.plauen Preis for cartoonists. Jean-Jacques Sempé has been the subject of several documentary films, including 'Le Crayon entre les dents: Jean-Jacques Sempé' (1977) by Patrick Roegiers and Jean-Pierre Berckmans, 'Sempé, Rêver Pour Dessiner' (2002) by Françoise Gallo and 'Sempé, Dessinateur d'humour' (2011) by Marc Lecarpentier and Patrick Volson.

Le Petit Nicolas, by Sempé

Series and books by Jean-Jacques Sempé you can order today:

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.