Émile (Eugène Jean Louis) Courtet
Émile CohlOccupation / Title:
4/1/1857Date of death:
Émile Cohl was an important early independent cartoonist and animator, who was a caricaturist in the “Incoherent Movement” and has often been called “The Father of the Animated Cartoon.”
Family and early life
Émile Cohl often moved when he was young, due to his father’s work. His father, Elie Cohl, worked as a rubber salesman, and often was away from home. His mother, Emilie, worked as a linen seamstress. Émile Cohl was enrolled at the Ecole professionnelle de Pantin, during which he began to develop his love for art. He was moved to Ecole Turget when Pariswent through the Franco-Prussian War and his father’s factory closed. He discovered at this time two major forms of art which would become instrumental in his developing art practice. Guignol puppet theater, a form of puppetry involving marionettes, and political caricature were both forms available to Cohl onParis streets near his school, and he began to take part in them. He drew caricatures, even giving up certain apprenticeships that his father placed him in (first with a jeweller, then with a maritime insurance broker) so as to have more time to devote to caricature and drawing. Having been interested in stamp collecting, he took up a job with a philatelist, and continued to create art.
In 1878, Cohl got a job as a background artist for a very well known caricaturist of the day, André Gill. Gill’s work was very influenced by a form of Guignol puppet theater, making heads extremely large and bodies small and puppet-like. Cohl drew on Gill’s style, and expanded on the ways in which it used puppetry as an influence – adding notes of movement and expression usually found in the theatrical form.
In 1879 Cohl created a caricature of the president, Patrice de MacMahon, Duke of Magenta, called ”Aveugle par Ac-Sedan”. The caricature landed Cohl in jail, and also made him extremely well known. Upon his release, he met with a new group of poets and artists called “The Hydropathes”. Cohl rose in status in the group, and was named editor of the first piece produced by the group. When his father died around the same time, Cohl used the small legacy as a support while he explored various arts: caricature, writing, and theatrical production.
In 1882, when The Hydropathes disbanded, Cohl joined a new group called The Incoherents, founded by Jules Lévy. The group was more focused on surreal, absurdist and childlike art. In 1883, Cohl became the editor in chief of La Nouvelle Lune, where he had been contributing art and writing. The group also put on various exhibitions of drawings, gaining public attention and further enabling Cohl to develop his absurd style.
He then moved to Londonand began working on a vast array of papers and magazines, submitting his humorous drawings and articles. One such journal was L’Illustré National, where he would begin his first comic strip. He also became more interested in Impressionism, puzzles, matchstick doll-making, and inventing toys.
In 1907 Cohl got a job with the Gaumont Studio, which produced motion pictures. Though it is unknown exactly how Cohl met the manager and got the job, he became a scenarist in charge of working on movie ideas. At the studio, Cohl collaborating with almost all of the directors, and aided in the cinematography and directing of a wide variety of scenes. He mostly, at the time, worked on inserts for live action films.
When J. Stuart Blackton released The Haunted Hotel (1907), it became extremely popular. Specifically, audiences wanted to see more of the incredible animated objects which Blackton had featured. Therefore, studios felt a demand to learn and introduce more animated sequences into their films and undergo the great labour and cost of doing so. Gaumont Studios, where Cohl worked, was of course among them.
The following year, Émile Cohl produced what is considered to be the first fully animated film, and is one of his most well known works: Fantasmagorie (1908). The film is done in chalk-line style (reversed drawings, made to look like white chalk on a blackboard), and follows a clown and gentleman character through several surreal transformations in a stream of consciousness style. It seems that Cohl had drawn on the artistic movements that he had been part of, and put their ideas in new form with the building blocks (including style and characters) that Blackton had created.
Following Fantasmagorie, Cohl created Le Cauchemar du fantoche (“The Puppet’s Nightmare“) and Un Drame chez les fantoches (“A Puppet Drama“, called “The Love Affair in Toyland” for American release) in 1908. They featured a very similar chalk-line style and storylines of constant transformation.
Cohl continued to create animation sequences for Gaumont Studios, using a broad range of techniques including puppet animation and paper cut-outs. In 1910, he made Le Peintre néo-impressionniste (“The Neo-Impressionistic Painter“), about an art collector, asking to see the progress of an artists work when all he sees are blank canvases, who begins to deliriously imagine the works of art that the artist begins to describe. The collector then buys all of the blank canvases, swept away by the images he imagines!
In 1910, Cohl left Gaumont Studios for Pathé, where he unfortunately seemed to be transitioned out of animation work and into more straightforward live action filming. Some say that in some of these films the technique of pixilation. In 1911, Cohl moved studios again, this time to Eclipse, after tragically learning that his daughter had died from a miscarriage. During this time he made films such as ”Les Exploits de Feu Follet” (a.k.a. “The Nipper’s Transformations” and ”Campbell Soups” for Eclipse and other studios in France.
One of these studios also had a studio in America, which was run by a friend of Cohl’s. As this studio, Éclair, decided to explore more comedic films, Cohl was asked to come work for the studio. He then moved to New Jerseywith his wife and son. At the studio, he began working on newsreel inserts and The Newlyweds, an animated series based off of the newspaper comic strip by George McManus. Advertisements for the series, running in 1913, were the first to label comic animated films as “animated cartoons.” The most significant aspect of Cohl’s adaptations were the use of tableau transitions, which he did using ingenious animated transformations: his trademark. The series was tremendously popular, and greatly facilitated an explosion in comic book and animation consumption.
His time at Éclair fell apart around the time that WWI began. In 1914, a death in Cohl’s wife’s family brought them back toParis. At the same time, a fire wreaked the Éclair studio and destroyed its films. Soon, with the onslaught of WWI and the steady decline of his wife, Cohl was not nearly as involved with animation work. Though still working at Éclair’s French location, an emerging enthusiasm for, and import of, American comics proved to be yet another challenge.
Around 1916, the children’s book illustrator Benjamin Rabier asked Cohl to animate his characters. Les Dessins animés de Benjamin Rabier (The Animated Drawings of Benjamin Rabier) was produced, and was successful for a while. Cohl became angry at the fact that he was not being credited in advertisement for the series, so the production unit fell apart and Rabier went on to continue animating the series alone.
Cohl kept working with Éclair, making inserts such as Les Aventures des Pieds Nickelés (Adventures of the Leadfoot Gang) for newsreels. Work altogether stopped, however, when the Éclair-Journal studios was taken over in order to produce wartime propaganda instead. After the studio turned over, Cohl kept making films on his own, the most significant of which being Fantoche cherche un logement (Puppet Looks for an Apartment) (1921). However, his work was rarely being acknowledged anymore, and he struggled throughout the Great Depression with little recognition or remembrance for his work, until his death in 1938.
Donald Crafton. Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film; Princeton Press, 1990.
Giannalberto Bendazzi (Anna Taraboletti-Segre, English translator). Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation; Indiana University Press, 2001.