by Douglas Yeo
Artist Jean-Jacques Sempé died on August 11 at the age of 89. Like so many people in the United States, I got to know his whimsical cartoons while reading The New Yorker (Sempé was French and his artwork appeared internationally). When I was a young boy, my father subscribed to The New Yorker and I used to run home from school on the day the new issue would arrive in our mailbox so I could look enjoy the cover and the many sophisticated cartoons inside. I got to love Sempé’s sense of humor and his artistic style. He drew many covers for The New Yorker but he also drew cartoons that appeared in its interior pages.
And Sempé loved to draw the trombone.
Over the years, I’ve torn out many pages of issues of The New Yorker and saved copies of several of Sempé’s cartoons that feature the trombone. They make me smile. Here are three of my favorites.
Sempé’s cartoons could be simple or complex. I think that this cartoon (above) is a masterpiece of construction and the use of color. The scene is tranquil and there is a beautiful simplicity to the moment. Two friends playing trombone around a swimming pool in a backyard. What could be finer.
Sempé’s cartoons could also be busy and provide commentary in the midst of familiar scenes. Here we are (above) at a symphony orchestra concert. The viewer’s eye is drawn immediately to the tuba player who is late in coming to his seat on stage. Four annoyed trombone players are expressing their displeasure. The conductor is waiting for things to settle down before giving the downbeat. But don’t miss the other scene that’s going on in the audience. A woman is also coming late to her seat. Both the tuba player and the woman in in the green dress have the same urgent, forward moving posture as they are trying to get to their seats. Parallel situations on the same vertical plane, on and off stage. Genius. Sempé’s use of vivid color to highlight the tuba player and the woman is a masterpiece of design. FYI, the big white blotch in the audience is a spot where the paper is torn off. I don’t remember how that happened. . .
This is my favorite Sempé cartoon (above). It was not a cover for The New Yorker; it appeared on an interior page. I ripped this page from the issue so I don’t know the date it appeared. This scene is perfect. A night at the opera and a big moment with the singers on stage. The trombonist, who had left his chair in the opera pit (to get a drink? to relieve himself? to make a phone call? to check his stock portfolio?), opens the wrong door and ends up on stage in the middle of the performance. The expression of the two singers, the trombonist’s empty chair in the pit, and the orchestra playing at full throat in the midst of this epic faux pas tells the story with great clarity.
Jean-Jacques Sempé understood life, and he understood the trombone. While he’s no longer with us to create new art, we are truly fortunate to have the art he left behind. Longue vie Sempé!