Swiss self-taught artist and animator Étienne Delessert, globally lauded for the surrealistic, wildly imaginative images in his more than 80 children’s books, died on April 22 in Lakeville, Conn., following a battle with cancer. He was 83.

Delessert was born January 4, 1941, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the only child of Ferdinand, a minister, and Berengere Delessert. Delessert’s mother died just two weeks after his birth, and he notes in his biography for Something About the Author that his stepmother “was a great storyteller and influenced my creative development tremendously.” He recalled treasured long walks through the forest with his father, and spending summers in the countryside, all of which “made a strong impression on me,” he wrote. “I learned about colors and smells and the feel of animals and landscape first-hand.”

At age eight, Delessert was already drawing Walt Disney characters as well as portraits and caricatures, and throughout his childhood he loved to read fables and fairy tales from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. After completing his traditional schooling at College Classique (1951–56) and Gymnase Classique (1957–58) in Lausanne, Delessert apprenticed at local Studio Maffei for three years as a graphic artist.

When Delessert was 21, he moved to Paris and established his career as an art director, creating and designing advertising campaigns. He landed an increasing number of assignments as an editorial illustrator publishing pieces in a variety of magazines including Fortune and Playboy.

In 1965, Delessert moved to New York and launched a studio with fellow Swiss artist Eléonore Schmid. His goals were to find more magazine illustration and advertising work and to break into the children’s book industry, inspired by Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Leo Lionni, and other author-illustrators whose work he admired. “I was attracted to children’s books because they are a medium in which I can develop a story through text and illustration on several levels,” he told SATA. “Picture books are closely related to film, which also plays with images and text.”

Delessert made his first inroads in the book world when French author-illustrator Ungerer introduced him to some American publishers, but none of the manuscripts Delessert was offered appealed. He eventually found a good fit with Harlin Quist Books in 1967, becoming one of the six illustrators publishing titles in Quist’s inaugural line of groundbreaking picture books. His debut, The Endless Party (Quist, 1967), a reimagining of the Noah’s Ark story, written with Eleonore Schmid and featuring a bold new visual style, was published there and illustrators around the world have cited the book as an influence.

While still working with publisher Harlan Quist, Delessert petitioned him to find him more interesting material and to ask French playwright Eugène Ionesco to write a children’s book. Ionesco, in turn, delivered four short texts—which he had created as entertainment for his daughter—for Delessert to illustrate. The first of those, Story Number 1 (Quist, 1968), was a 1968 New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

“Étienne Delessert is a modern Hieronymus Bosch,” Ionesco wrote in a 1981 essay for Bookbird. “He is more serene than a Dutch painter, however; he too is quite fantastic, but less symbolic. Through the monstrous, through caricature, the gigantic and the grotesque, he discovers the beautiful and a sort of a fascinating emanation of beings and things in the colors—through the colors.”

Though Delessert was gaining momentum in children’s publishing, he grew concerned about some of the criticism his books received. “I was disturbed over the fact that some people regarded them beyond the grasp of children—too avant-garde,” he said. He decided to solicit the opinion of Swiss child psychologist Piaget and sent him some books. Piaget expressed his admiration for Delessert’s work, and the two scheduled a meeting. After a long and far-ranging discussion, they zeroed in on a project to do together, inspired by five- and six-year-olds’ understanding of natural phenomena. The result was the book How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and So Discovered the World, featuring a foreword by Piaget (Doubleday, 1971). His next book for Doubleday, a 75th-anniversary edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories published in 1972, earned him a second New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books designation.

Delessert was back in Paris working as a magazine art director in 1973 when he co-founded Carabosse Studios in Lausanne with Anne van der Essen. The company produced TV commercials and animated films for kids, including several pieces for Sesame Street and the feature film Supersaxo. Carabosse was also the birthplace of Delessert’s enduring character Yok-Yok, recognized by his large mushroom-like red cap, who was originally the star of 150 10-second animated shorts made for Swiss television. “I wanted to base them on nature,” he said of the animations. “I wanted to answer such questions as ‘Why does a woodpecker tap on a tree trunk?’ and ‘What do frogs eat?’ ”

In addition to illustrating books, Delessert carved out new space in the art design and production aspects of the book business. In 1977, Delessert established Éditions Tournesol and published a series of picture books adapted from the Yok-Yok shorts, written by van der Essen and illustrated by Delessert. The books were a hit, and with distribution by French publisher Gallimard, were sold in numerous countries.

Around this time, Delessert had begun collaborating with American art director and designer Rita Marshall, who had moved to Lausanne in 1981 to work with advertising agency TBWA. One of their bigger projects came by way of Ann Redpath, an editor at Minnesota publishing house Creative Education. She had admired the Éditions Tournesol books she saw at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in the late 1970s, and asked Delessert and Marshall to come aboard as graphic consultants for Creative Education. The couple co-edited and produced a series of 20 fairy tale retellings by various illustrators that they had selected for the project. Within that series, Sarah Moon’s dark interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, set in 1940s Paris, won the grand prize at the 1984 Bologna Fair. “You should not present children with sugar-coated versions of reality,” Delessert wrote in SATA. “You have to expose them to all kinds of experiences, especially with a sense of humor and a sense of the bizarre with surrealistic situations which open them up to another kind of reality, another point of view.”

Delessert and Marshall were married in 1985, the year they moved back to the U.S. and settled in Connecticut. (They would welcome a son a few years later.) The couple continued to collaborate professionally as well. In 1988, after designing for the Creative Company on a freelance basis, Marshall took a position as art director and chief designer at the company, working closely with publisher Tom Peterson to shape the house’s picture book lists. I Hate to Read! (Creative, 1992) and I Still Hate to Read! (Creative, 2007), written by Marshall, and inspired by the couple’s son, were among the dozens of titles they worked on together.

Delessert received numerous awards for his children’s book illustrations including the Premio Grafico of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 1981 (Yok-Yok series) and 1989 (for A Long, Long Song), and he was a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2010. He has been honored with 13 gold and 14 silver medals, as well as the 1996 Hamilton King Award, all from the American Society of Illustrators, and his wider body of work has been exhibited around the world to great acclaim, including a one-man retrospective mounted at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Louvre in 1975 and another retrospective that debuted in Rome and traveled internationally and to eight cities in the U.S. including Washington, D.C., where it was featured at the Library of Congress.

In 2017, Delessert created the foundation Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire, headquartered in Lausanne. His mission with this project was to curate a long-term, diversified collection of original art spanning the past 50 years by renowned picture book illustrators from around the world that helps showcase the immense value of global publishing.

Kate Riggs, former managing editor of the Creative Company, and Delessert’s longtime editor, paid tribute: “The Étienne I knew was passionate—about art, about children’s literature, and about his own contributions to each. His influence reached far beyond the books he illustrated; there are artists all around the world who credit him as an inspiration and count him as a friend. I’ll always be grateful for the connections we forged and the books we made.”

And Anna Erickson, v-p of sales at the Creative Company, offered this remembrance: “Étienne was a lion of a man within the Creative Company family. He believed that children’s picture books should never shy away from big ideas or strong emotions, and he loved a good debate. I seldom picked up his phone calls without bracing myself first. The force of his ideas lives on in his work, but now the lion rests.”