Kay Nielsen - signature
5 & 11 have Nielsen color art

B&W ImageS
1 & 3 feature his unpublished
The Book of Death series done in 1911

Kay (pronounced "kigh") Nielsen is considered one of a triumvirate of classic "great " illustrators from the golden age of illustration and gift book design during the first quarter of the 20th century. Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac were the other stars. (Yes, I know that there were dozens of others plying their trade in the same market, W. Heath Robinson not the least of them.)

Kay Nielsen - In Powder and CrinolineArthur Rackham (born in 1867) looked to the work of the romantic school of art for inspiration. So did the early efforts of Dulac (born 1882). Nielsen (1886-1957) was influenced from the start by the more "modern" styles of Beardsley, Burne-Jones and the influx of Japanese art that was spreading to the West at this time. The books he illustrated were generally distinct from those of his contemporaries, too. Where Rackham did The Ingoldsby Legends and Dulac, Tanglewood Tales, both classics of the 19th Century, Nielsen chose In Powder and Crinoline (1913). This Arthur Quiller-Couch book is a distinctively 20th Century book that Nielsen made his own. It was published in America as Twelve Dancing Princesses. To this day, few artists have dared to attempt a different version.

Nielsen was born in Denmark and studied art in Paris. To his artistic influences must be added John Bauer, the great Swedish fairy tale artist. Echoes of his forests and trees lurk in the backgrounds of many of Nielsen's paintings. Art Nouveau and The Birmingham School, as exemplified by Jessie M. King, were also part of the raw materials he assimilated in search of a style.

Kay Nielsen - East of the SunHis second great book, arguably his masterpiece, was East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914). The image at right is a wonderful example of his use of various design elements. Note especially the Hiroshige wave. The composition is striking, the colors both subtle and bold, and the design elements demand constant reinspection. Most of all, the picture is memorable. Once you've seen it, you can't forget it - or the story it illustrated. The detail below helps to express the powerful lure and density of Nielsen's vision.

Kay Nielsen - East of the Sun (Detail)
East of the Sun and West of the Moon was another book that Nielsen appropriated for himself. Written by Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen, the fifteen Nordic tales were seldom attempted by another artist. Until the Mercer Mayer edition of 1980 (which only illustrated the title tale), I can't recall another memorable version. Nielsen's 25 watercolors so captured the spirit and beauty of the subject matter that they've served as a visual intimidator ever since.

Kay Nielsen - Hansel and GretelWorld War I was a great interrupter in Nielsen's life and career. The momentum that he had achieved was thwarted and he published nothing until 1924. The intervening years were spent in Copenhagen where he was active in theater production. The 1924 book was Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales, a project begun in 1912 and an obligatory task for any Danish illustrator. This was followed by Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories By The Brothers Grimm in 1925 (see image at right). Both were lavish enough, but were inherently more modest productions with twelve plates each. They seemed to rejuvenate neither Nielsen's career nor the flagging market for gift books. Kay returned once more to Copenhagen and the theater.

He and his collaborator, Johannes Poulsen, staged many fantastic productions including Aladdin, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. They were invited to stage Max Reinhardt's Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936 and Nielsen and his wife, Ulla, came to California. After Poulsen's death, Nielsen chose to remain and try his hand in the animation business. He applied for work at Walt Disney Productions.

According to John Canemaker in his excellent 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. Both the style and pace of animation were very foreign to Nielsen. The hard edges and simpler shapes needed for the process were the antithesis of his soft and ornate pastels. The need for speed was a severe problem for a fifty-year-old. The industry was famous for wearing out much younger men and Kay was never fast to begin with. Couple those factors with the intense studio effort to produce Fantasia and Nielsen's career was destined for an early end.

Kay Nielsen - FantasiaNielsen's designs were featured in the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences of Fantasia, but in 1940 he was laid off. He was brought back to work on designs for a Fantasia sequel that was discontinued after the disappointing showing of the original at the box office. He did some drawings for a version of The Little Mermaid, a film that had to wait almost 50 years to be made. Nielsen was given a posthumous screen credit as one of the designers.

He died in 1957 in poverty. The home he lived in and much of the necessities of his life for his last decades had been provided by local friends. His work during those decades was comprised of four local mural commissions for schools and a church. His wife, Ulla, died a year later. In 1975, David Larkin published Kay Nielsen, a collection of his work in his series of books on illustrators of the golden age. Suddenly his work was appreciated and loved again. Two years later, two of the Nielsens' friends came forward with a set of 42 paintings he had done years before for an unpublished edition of A Thousand and One Nights. They had carefully held the canvasses in trust after his death, certain that he would again be acknowledged by the public. The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen also contains a moving and loving tribute to Nielsen by Hildegarde Flanner. She was one of the custodians of the paintings and a neighbor who had supported and treasured her once-famous friends.


To learn more about Kay Nielsen, see:

Before the Animation Begins John Canemaker, 1996 Hyperion
The Illustrated Gift Book Michael Felmingham, 1989 Wildwood House
Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century Brigid Peppin & Lucy Micklethwait, 1984 Arco
A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators Susan E. Meyer, 1983 Abradale/Abrams 
The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914 Simon Houfe, 1981 Antique Collectors' Club
The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen David Larkin, 1977 Peacock/Bantam
Kay Nielsen, An Appreciation Welleran Poltarnees, 1976 Green Tiger
Kay Nielsen David Larkin, 1975 Peacock/Bantam
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1998
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of ImageS 5, 11, B&W ImageS 1, 3 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009 JVJ Publishing

Some illustrations copyright by Walt Disney Productions, et al. This page written, designed & © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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