The Drawings of Jean-Paul Sartre


We’ve estab­lished some­thing of a tra­di­tion here of fea­tur­ing draw­ings by famous authors. It seems, unsur­pris­ing­ly, that skill with the pen often goes hand-in-glove with a keen visu­al sense, though admit­ted­ly some writ­ers are more tal­ent­ed drafts­men than oth­ers. William Faulkn­er, for exam­ple, cre­at­ed some very fine pen-and-ink illus­tra­tions for his col­lege news­pa­per dur­ing his brief time at Ole Miss. Franz Kafka’s expres­sion­is­tic sketch­es are quite strik­ing, despite his anguished protes­ta­tions to the con­trary. And Jorge Luis Borges’ doo­dles are as quirky and play­ful as the author him­self. Today we bring you the sketch­es of that great French exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher, nov­el­ist, and play­wright Jean-Paul Sartre—a col­lec­tion of six rough, child­like car­i­ca­tures that are, shall we say, rather less than accom­plished. It’s cer­tain­ly for the best—as the cliché goes—that Sartre nev­er quit his day job for an art career.


But there is a cer­tain wicked charm in Sartre’s visu­al satires of human moral fail­ings, which he calls a “series de ‘douze vices sans allusion’”—roughly, “a series of twelve vices with­out ref­er­ence.” Either Sartre only com­plet­ed half the series, or—more likely—half have been lost, since the author assures the recip­i­ent of his hand­i­work, a Made­moi­selle Suzanne Guille, that he presents to her a “série com­plete.” Who was Suzanne Guille? Your guess is as good as mine. Yale’s Bei­necke Rare Book & Man­u­script Library, which hous­es these sketch­es, gives us no indi­ca­tion. Per­haps she was a rel­a­tive, per­haps the spouse, of Pierre Guille, Simon de Beauvoir’s last lover? Giv­en the many com­pli­cat­ed liaisons pur­sued by both Sartre and his part­ner, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are indeed intrigu­ing. As for the draw­ings? Their sub­jects hold more inter­est than their exe­cu­tion, pro­vid­ing us with keys to Sartre’s moral uni­verse.


The first car­i­ca­ture, at the top, is titled “Le Con­tent­ment de soi”—“Self-Satisfaction”—and the character’s pompous expres­sion says as much. Below it, the curi­ous lit­tle fel­low with the curlicue nose is called “L’Esprit Critique”—“The Spir­it of Crit­i­cism.” And above we have “Le respect de la con­signe et de la jurée”—“Keeping a Sworn Oath.” You can see the remain­ing three draw­ings, and read Sartre’s let­ter (in French, of course) to Made­moi­selle Guille in pdf form here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philosophy’s Pow­er Cou­ple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir, Fea­tured in 1967 TV Inter­view

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Two Child­hood Draw­ings from Poet E.E. Cum­mings Show the Young Artist’s Play­ful Seri­ous­ness

The Art of Sylvia Plath: Revis­it Her Sketch­es, Self-Por­traits, Draw­ings & Illus­trat­ed Let­ters

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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