Joseph Hémard was born in 1880, in a small town near Paris. He was a prolific artist, designing costumes, theatre sets, patterns for printed textiles, book bindings, posters, menus, letterheads, and even a façade for a bar in the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative Art.
Hémard’s lasting fame, however, lies in his book illustrations – always with a distinctly French character, usually comic, and often mildly erotic. He was probably the most prolific book illustrator in the first half of the twentieth century in France, if not the entire world. Many of his illustrations were executed in pochoir, a hand stenciling process producing intense, gorgeous colors still vibrant after three-quarters of a century.
A great number of books feature Hémard’s comic illustrations, including the classics of French literature and many otherwise humorless works of nonfiction such as the French Tax Code (pictured at right), a pharmacy manual, and promotional booklets for the French National Lottery. Hémard was himself a prolific author, writing many of the books he illustrated including a children’s history of France and textbooks of grammar, French history and arithmetic. Hémard also wrote novels and songs, and, in his final years, created crossword puzzles.
It is apparent from his drawings that Hémard loved all that he encountered in life – the young and the old, the rich and the vagrant, children and dogs, but above all, women.
Hémard died in Paris in 1961. After World War II, his popularity at home waned. He remains virtually unknown in the United States. In recent years, however, interest in Hémard has increased in France where his art has been the subject of exhibitions and scholarship.
The title of this exhibition is taken from a brief autobiographical essay in which Hémard first discusses a number of supposed ancestors, devotes two paragraphs to his childhood, and then states: “And then I drew for books.”
Farley P. Katz
San Antonio 2012
“ ‘And then I drew for books’: The Comic Art of Joseph Hémard,” curated by Farley P. Katz and Mike Widener, is on display Sept. 15 - Dec. 15, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.