Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) was a Danish illustrator popular during the turn of the 20th century, otherwise known as the “golden age” of illustration. Both of Nielsen’s parents were actors and he grew up in what he referred to as “an intense atmosphere of art.” At the age of seventeen Nielsen went to Paris, where he spent the next seven years studying art at several different schools before heading to London.
Nielsen’s art was heavily influenced by both John Bauer, a Swedish fairy tale artist as well as Art Nouveau and the Birmingham School. Despite his traditional artistic training, Nielsen was also influenced by Chinese art, stating “I was brought up in a classical view concerning art, but I remember I loved the Chinese drawings and carvings in my mother’s room…” These influences are easily seen in Nielsen’s work, especially his East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
Nielsen published several illustrated books revolving around fairy tales and folk lore, including In Powder and Crinoline (Twelve Dancing Princesses), East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson. Nielsen also spent time in Copenhagen painting stage scenery for the theater before heading to California, where he eventually applied for work at Walt Disney Productions.
Most of Nielsen’s work for Disney was in the form of concept art, although his artwork was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. According to John Canemaker in Before the Animation Begins, “Nielsen’s working pace had always been leisurely, but his vision was so unique that Disney set up an “inspirational assembly line” with Albert Hurter feeding him general ideas. Nielsen would render scenes in pastel in his own style and pass them on to other artists who would supply additional scenes in a similar style or simplified versions for animation guides.” In fact, Nielsen worked on concept art for the Little Mermaid, a film that would not be made for another fifty years. Nielsen’s “leisurely” pace ultimately ended his animation career after only four years with Disney (1937-1941).
Nielsen and his wife remained in California where he lived out the rest of his life in relative poverty, working mostly on murals. In Welleran Poltarnees’ Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation his wife remarked on a mural Nielsen was working on with “Kay is slow…but he plans and he is on time…and as you can see it’s good. He is always good.”
The Walter Havighurst Special Collections is home to many of the books illustrated by Kay Nielsen, including In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I encourage you to come explore his beautiful artwork.