September 27, 2022

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New York, cartoonist Sempe's spiritual home

New York, cartoonist Sempe’s spiritual home

Over the course of his storied career, Jean-Jacques Sempe became a fixture on the newsstands of New York, illustrating more than 100 covers of the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

After republishing one of those iconic covers on an inner page this week, the magazine will reuse one of his drawings on the cover of its September 5 edition, said the periodical’s art editor Francoise Mouly.

This week’s drawing by Sempe — who died on August 11 at age 89 — depicts a tiny person carrying a briefcase as he walks a red carpet into the heart of the city, surrounding by enormous skyscrapers.

It’s a theme Sempe toyed with for much of his career: normal people navigating the mundanities of life, dwarfed by the world’s gigantism.

The cultural weekly founded in 1925 is known as much for its covers that showcase artists as it is for its investigative reports, commentaries and satires.

Sempe worked with The New Yorker from 1978 to 2019.

Mouly, a French woman who worked with Sempe for 30 years and has been the magazine’s art editor since 1993, told AFP it “will be the 114th cover” from the beloved illustrator.

114 covers

Both New York City and the esteemed New Yorker were childhood dreams of Sempe, who suffered a difficult childhood, dropping out of school at age 14 before lying about his age to join the army.

In the 1970s, he met the American illustrator Ed Koren, who took him around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, introducing him to the magazine’s journalists and editors.

In August 1978, the French artist signed his first cover, which showed a bird in business casual at the edge of an open window, hesitating to take flight.

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With his 113 covers, Sempe traced his love for New York, which he traveled on foot and by bike, amazed by the Big Apple’s colors, energy, cats, green spaces, music, and tiny humans traversing great swaths of urbanity.

“Jean-Jacques was a very modest man, very humble,” said Mouly, who is married to cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who wrote the renowned “Maus.”

Sempe “was expelled from school, from the army — he was self-taught and found it marvelous to be published in an American magazine,” the 66-year-old editor and graphic artist said.

At home in New York
For Mouly, Sempe “always felt like himself in New York.”

Much of his popularity stemmed from his depiction of “individuals, a man, a woman, alone in the city — half of my colleagues would say to me, ‘That’s me, that’s me!” said Mouly with a smile.

“Like me, I thought this morning on my bike, ‘I’m the drawing of Sempe, the little old lady on her bike heading to work.'”

Sempe even has his place on the city’s walls.

At the intersection of 47th Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan stands a giant mural signed by the illustrator behind the beloved “Little Nicolas” series of children’s books — a man carrying a woman on a bicycle, trailed by a boy on two wheels.

In 2009, the publisher Denoel put out a book of Sempe drawings entitled “Sempe in New York.”

Another book, “Sempe in America,” is planned for September, according to Mouly.

“The New York of Sempe will live on,” she said.

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