The Hand Of The Artist
JJ Sempe, New Yorker Magazine artist
Yesterday, I went to see an exhibition of the work of Jean-Jacques Sempe at the French Institute in New York City. Many remember him as the illustrator of Le Petit Nicolas children’s books, but I know him for his work for The New Yorker. He died last August at age 89.
The exhibit is a visual treat and a reminder to us, in this new AI world, of the need for the hand of the artist.
He began doing covers for The New Yorker in 1978, right as I was forging out into the world to see if I had a career in drawing. I had not yet sold to The New Yorker, it would be another year before I did. I don’t recall the first time I saw his work—it could have been before that because I was very much aware of some French cartoonists. But his drawings definitely influenced mine.
Below is a closeup photo I took yesterday of one of his New Yorker covers from 1985. The way he used watercolor and his pen line is mezmerizing. His work forces you to look closely and when you do, you are treated to detail and a delicate use of materials. Not to mention you are handed the wonderful individuals enjoying life that Sempe imagined. I learned so much looking at his paintings in real life yesterday.
He was a master of light and muted tones and balancing his light pen line with watercolor.
It was inspiring.
He drew a lot about musicians, but he also loved to draw New York City scapes (and the NYC Marathon!). Often the city paintings would have a lone figure somewhere in a window or on the street.
I love drawing people in cities, I am not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s a fascination with the energy and industriousness of people, their creativity in the face of all odds. Sometimes Sempe’s paintings reflect isolation, but I think in the way he drew his people, there was always hope. That resonates with me.
I wish the exhibit had been much, much bigger. Mr. Sempe deserves a big show at the Whitney or Guggenheim!
Thank you, Mr. Sempe.
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