Art For Art’s Sake #169: Celebrating The Beautiful Artwork Of Sempé

Art For Art’s Sake celebrates the life of French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, who died aged 89 on 11th August 2022.


Another sad loss to the world of cartoons and comics now, another great of the medium gone. This really is turning into a terrible, terrible year.

Jean-Jacques Sempé illustrated the adored Little Nicolas (Le Petit Nicolas) series of French children’s books that he created with Rene Goscinny. He was also known as a prolific and quite magnificent cover artist for The New Yorker magazine, where he illustrated more covers than any other artist.

Le Petit Nicholas told the everyday life of a little Parisian boy, the smallest in his class. It’s a wonderfully innocent world that Nicholas lives in, full of a nostalgia for France of old, one envisioned by Goscinny and Sempé as an idealised France of a 1950s childhood and one for Sempé that would allow him to deal with his childhood, something he would late in life describe as ‘a little tragic,’ and Nicholas was something he called “a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine.”


Sempé’s early life was tough and led to him lying about his age to enlist in the French army. But after being discharged once his young age was discovered, Sempé moved to Paris, where he would sell drawings to Parisian newspapers including Paris Match and Belgian weekly Le Moustique, which is where Sempé’s Nicholas first appeared on various covers and then as a comic strip. And that’s where René Goscinny became involved, under the pen name Agostini, writing the Petit Nicolas comic strip for 28 episodes from 25 September 1955 until 20 May 1956. By then great friends, when World Presse fired René Goscinny, Sempé left the agency as well, calling an end to Le Petit Nicholas’ first incarnation.


Thankfully, Sud-Ouest Dimanche then commissioned more Le Petit Nicolas as illustrated prose stories and Sempé and Goscinny resumed their creative partnership, debuting the first episode on 30 March 1959. By the end of the year Le Petit Nicolas was also running in the Goscinny co-founded Pilote.

The illustrated prose version of Le Petit Nicolas was a huge success in Europe, reaching across the generations, Goscinny and Sempé’s Nicolas evoking memories of a world gone by, populated by Goscinny’s colourful additions to Nicholas’ world, and ending up with a series that was absolutely beloved across so much of Europe, particularly once the series was collected into five book editions between 1960 and 1964.

Le Petit Nicolas is timeless because when we created it it was already out of fashion.

– Jean-Jacques Sempé

Although Nicholas would eventually become an international bestseller with more than 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, with adaptations including a film and cartoon series, for much of his life Sempe was unknown outside of France.

Thankfully, the recognition garnered by his New Yorker covers meant that Sempé became internationally recognised as a master cartoonist, his glorious drawings often looking down on the world to fully appreciate all that he could include, so beautifully, so masterfully.

Sempé’s art is a beautiful thing, his line so confident, often beautifully sparse, and yet packed with detail. A master left us.


Jean-Jacques Sempé, 17th August 1932 – 11th August 2022


Art For Art’s Sake celebrates the life of French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, who died aged 89 on 11th August 2022.COMICONRead More

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