We are on the seventh floor of an old apartment building overlooking the turbulent Boulevard du Montparnasse. A floor-to-ceiling window stands in front of the vast drawing table, offering views over the Parisian rooftops and a now spire-less Notre-Dame, cut short by the fire. The panorama is beautiful, bright, and Parisian. But there are also pieces of America in Monsieur Sempé’s studio. Miles Davis records are strewn near the workbench, a map of Manhattan hangs on the wall, and a few copies of The New Yorker lie on a table. A little further along, a piano serves as a showcase for a photo, a volume of memoirs, and a scoresheet by Duke Ellington, his idol. “We played together in Saint-Tropez,” says Jean-Jacques Sempé, 88, his tired eyes lighting up with the memory. “He was very kind. He said ‘You play the right hand, I’ll play the left.’ He weaved musical motifs like Claude Debussy while I tried to keep up using two fingers.”
Sempé was 13 when he discovered the Duke on the radio. He was fascinated by America from then on, like so many other French children after the Liberation. The artist arrived in New York in 1965 at the age of 27, and was bowled over. “I remember feeling crushed by the immensity of the city. All the windows, the thousands of windows. Some of them were lit up, others were dark, it was beautiful. There is an off-beat in the city’s geometry, just like in jazz. There was a harmonious break in the rhythm that you don’t find in Paris.” The vertical perspectives inspired him, and so did the colors. “New York is colorful while Paris is gray-blue. New York is more attractive to an illustrator.” In his 70-year career, Sempé has created many drawings of the two cities that now pay homage to him. Manhattan is home to a wall painting of one of his illustrations, a couple on a bike, on the corner of 47th Street and 9th Avenue.
Sempé produced his first cover for The New Yorker in 1978 and has created 113 in total. “Don’t ask me to explain this success,” he says. “The word is very relative. I used to send in my drawings, and they either took them or they didn’t. I don’t have a magic formula, and the style of The New Yorker is undefinable. As the former art editor liked to say, the thing that means a drawing makes the cover of The New Yorker is its publication.” None of Sempé’s covers are the same, but they all have a unique poetry, perhaps because he has never lived in New York for more than a week at a time. As he has only had fleeting experiences of the city, has he idealized it? In answer to this question, he nods his head: “Yes, they may have liked the fresh perspective.” Some of his illustrations had nothing to do with New York. However, Sempé is the illustrator with the most covers for the magazine – his latest was published in September 2019.
Among the drawings littering the studio, some seem to be in the format of a magazine cover. At 88, Monsieur Sempé is still hard at work. “I add little touches, I finish things here and there. I draw from memory, I dither, I rummage, and I throw lots of work away! It’s a process.” The drawing board is covered in paper, pencils, quills, and scruffy brushes. He still uses the same type of India ink, Pelikan number 17. If a line is not to the artist’s liking, he has to scratch it off the paper with a razorblade or a piece of fiberglass. He doesn’t like the new, thinner paper, and is delighted whenever he finds vintage styles.
Countless old pieces of paper are stuck to the wall. Many are works by his illustrator friends, signed by French artists Chaval, Savignac, and Bosc. There are also Americans, such as William Steig, Koren (the illustrator who hosted Sempé in New York), Ludwig Bemelmans, (whose name and handprint are still in a famous Manhattan bar), and Saul Steinberg, the godfather of humorous illustration. Sempé knew them all, despite having a poor grasp of English. “I didn’t go to school much. When I tried to learn English, it was irresistibly comical, I couldn’t stop stuttering. That didn’t stop me from working with the New Yorker my whole life. I have interpreters, and when we’re discussing work, we understand each other quickly.”
Illustration is universal, and especially his. Sempé has published 40 books, translated into 40 languages with 15 million copies sold. Some of them are on his bookshelves near the piano. There are books in Chinese, Polish, and Western Armenian. There is even a Pullus Nicolellus, a Latin version of Le Petit Nicolas, a series made with René Goscinny, the creator of Asterix. (A feature-length animated film based on the work will be released in French theaters on October 22, 2022.) The shelves are also stacked with novels by Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger. “I was advised by Françoise Sagan to read William Faulkner,” says the artist, in a matter-of-fact manner. “I never finished it. I don’t think I was able to appreciate his true worth. I love Edward Hopper’s paintings, like everyone else. I am quite desperately ordinary.”
Suddenly, Monsieur Sempé stops talking, his gentle gaze fixed on a little cat sleeping on the sofa. He smiles at our question. “You think Nefertiti bothers me during my work? You must be kidding! I’m the one who bothers her!” It seems clear that he would like to rest, just like his feline friend. With that, we leave him be, moved by our meeting with this titan of illustration, a man who is anything but “desperately ordinary.”