After being discharged from the army, he moved to Paris and in 1951 his first published drawing appeared in Southwest Sunday. From the mid-1950s onward, Sempé’s fame grew as a cartoonist and illustrator, contributing cartoons and illustrations to publications in both France (Paris Match, Marie-Claire, Constellation) and overseas (Punch, Esquire). Alongside his magazine work, dozens of books of his cartoons and illustrations were published.
In the late 1950s Sempé began collaborating with René Goscinny, a creative partnership that would continue for years and result in the children’s book series The little Nicolas (Little Nicholas), first published in 1959. Little Nicholas presents a nostalgic version of childhood in postwar France.
The first book was popular enough that, despite never having intended to create a series, Sempé and Goscinny went on to create four sequels. Hutchinson & Co. began publishing an English version of the books in 1961, and Little Nicholas quickly found an audience abroad. Today, more than 15 million copies have been sold.
Said Goscinny of Sempé’s work:
I have always been a very good observer. But hanging out with Sempé was as if I had sharpened my eyes and ears. He taught me this, for example: the conversation that one holds at a restaurant table and which seems normal to you becomes an inexhaustible source of humor as soon as you move away. This discreet distance is noticeable in each of his drawings and which, compared to the anecdote, takes on a significant and derisory dimension.
In 1978, after pitching his work to The New Yorker While vacationing in the city, Sempé started a decades-long relationship with the American magazine. Over the next several decades, he would publish more than 100 covers for the magazine, bringing him broader recognition in the United States.
In the late 2000s, thirty years after Goscinny’s death in 1977, his daughter Anne made the decision to publish a group of ten, previously unreleased Little Nicholas stories. Sempé, who didn’t know of the stories’ existence before then, returned to illustrate and continued a working relationship with the younger Goscinny.
Little Nicholas was as adapted two live-action feature films in 2009 and 2014, as well as a 2009 animated tv series. Just this year, a new adaptation, Little Nicholas – Happy as Can Be, premiered at Cannes before winning the Cristal for best feature at Annecy. Sempé is credited as a graphic designer on the latest film, which was adapted with Anne Goscinny and directed by Amandine Fredon and Benjamin Massoubre. After the news of Sempé’s death broke, Goscinny posted a touching photo and message on Facebook:
In your eyes Jean-Jacques I saw my father smiling…
The respect that Sempé commands as a visual artist in France can be seen in the tributes that have been given, including the front page of the Release newspaper:
In the light of @libe this week-end :
— Liberation (@libe) August 12, 2022
French president Emmanuel Macron has also tweeted his condolences:
Jazz, tender irony, the delicacy of intelligence. From Little Nicholasto Mr Lambert, to the walkers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Jean-Jacques Sempé had the elegance of always remaining light without anything escaping him. We cannot forget Him. His gaze and his pencil will be sorely missed.
Pictured at top: “Le Petit Nicolas” drawing by Sempé