Joseph Hémard was probably the best known French book illustrator of the 1920s and 30s, a prolific and talented artist who had an eye for visual wit and a keen social and political awareness. He grew up in Les Mureaux, a small town on the Seine northwest of Paris, before moving to Paris in his early twenties. Largely self-taught, during the early years of the twentieth century he published cartoons and comics in illustrated newspapers including Le Pêle-Mêle and Le Bon Vivant. He also designed costumes and sets for several operas, patterns for printed textiles, posters, and even a façade for a bar for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. His lasting fame, however, lies in his book illustrations, always distinctly French in character and often mildly erotic, which he produced for a great number of titles including many classics of French literature such as Molière’s Le malade imaginaire (1920), Rabelais’ Gargantua et Pantagruel (1922), Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste (1923), Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1927), and the thirteenth century chantefable (sung story) Aucassin et Nicolette (1936).

An illustration from his Géographie of 1928

Hémard also provided illustrations, typically humorous cartoon-like drawings, for many unlikely non-fiction works including a variety of technical and reference books. These included drawings for Le formulaire magistral, a technical pharmacological manual with formulas for preparing medications, as well as a French grammar and an arithmetic textbook, both of which he also authored, all published in 1927. The following year he published books he wrote and illustrated on French history and geography.

The cover of Code pénal

Hémard also published a number of humorously illustrated law codes, including the family law provisions of Le code civil, published in 1925, the Code pénal published in 1929, and in 1944 a lengthy illustrated tax code of France, the Code général des impôts directs et taxes assimilées.

The illustrations in many of the works illustrated by Hémard were printed in colour using the pochoir method, in which stencils for each colour to be printed are hand cut, typically out of celluloid or plastic, and the colours painted on using special brushes. Pochoir produces intensely coloured prints with a distinctly fresh look.

Hémard wrote a brief autobiographical essay, published by Babou and Kahane in French in 1928 and in English translation in 1929, which is largely devoid of detail. For example, after a random history of several ‘Hémards’, purportedly his ancestors, ending with his birth and two paragraphs on his childhood, he states, ‘And then I drew for books.’ He did admit that he spent four and a half years as a prisoner of war in Germany during the first world war, and must have been captured shortly after the war began. Although he remained in Paris and continued to work as an illustrator during the second world war, his anti-Nazi sentiments were expressed in illustrations and stories he contributed to a collection of humorous stories about the Occupation. Hémard continued his work at a reduced level after the war. In 1947, for example, he illustrated an edition of Brillat-Savarin's classic work on gastronomy, Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste).

Example illustration