In the past fifty years, many of J. J. Sempé’s hundred and twelve covers have celebrated the gratifications offered by la petite reine, his beloved bicycle. With a fragile and delicate line, Sempé captures a wide range of life’s simple pleasures––friendship, nature, animals, and music are recurrent themes––that even contemporary French people can’t take for granted. We recently chatted with the eighty-seven-year-old artist, en français, about the sources of his inspiration and the dreams that haunt his old age.
You have often spoken of your love of bicycling, but what inspired this specific image?
It’s always been one of my dreams—to have a group of friends who go for bike rides in the country every Sunday morning. In real life, it never happened. I kept trying to organize it but everyone was always too busy to slow down for it.
How did you conceive those outings?
Well, we’d get a bit of exercise, build some muscle and also spend some time together. We’d take our bikes on the train and get to the small country roads that run along the fields. It’s quiet and smells good and it’s totally out of fashion. Sometimes one of us would know a good country restaurant, but then it would turn out that it was closed. I keep thinking back on those outings—it’s one of the things I really wish I had done.
Do you have many other unrealized dreams?
Well, my most vivid dream is to have a piano duel with Duke Ellington. And, of course, he gets to win because I’m pathetic and he’s very, very good. I think about it virtually every night. Ellington is a man I adored. There’s a photo of him, smiling, on my piano. I look at him when I play and search for his approbation.
Did you ever meet Ellington?
Yes, once, a while back in Saint-Tropez. He was giving a concert and a friend of mine said, Come with us, we’ll have a drink with him afterward. When the concert ended, I rushed to the back. It was pitch black, no one was there, but in the dark I made out the outline of a piano and sat down. I was hitting a few keys when Ellington walked in. He said, “Not so bad!,” sat next to me, and said, “Do the right hand, I’ll do the left.” (The right hand is the easier one, of course.) We played a piece of his that I know quite well: “Satin Doll.” By then there were lots of other people around and they drew his attention away. I was so impressed that I had exchanged a few notes with him that I didn’t want anyone to talk to me or even look at me. I was trying to preserve the moment.
See below for other covers by Sempé that celebrate his love of biking.
“August 1, 1983”
“August 11, 1986”
“A Bicyclist on His Way to Brooklyn”