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, also featured in Gallery IV, were the other stars.
Arthur Rackham looked to the work of the Romantic school of art for inspiration. He was influenced from the start by the 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 the “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.
His second great book, arguably his masterpiece, was “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (1914). This 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), Nielsen’s 25 watercolors so captured the spirit and beauty of the subject matter that they’ve served as a visual intimidator ever since.
World 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 ther Stories From the Brothers Grimm in 1925. 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.
…It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house. They began to walk again, but they always came deeper into the forest, and if help did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness. When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar. “We will set to work on that,” said Hansel, “and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and you Gretel, can eat some of the window, it will taste sweet.” Hansel reached up above, and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted, and Gretel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes. From Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel
…Marlene went to her chest of drawers, took her best silk scarf from the bottom drawer, and gathered all her brother’s bones from beneath the table and tied them up in her silk scarf, then carried them outside the door, crying tears of blood.
She laid them down beneath the juniper tree on the green grass, and after she had put them there, she suddenly felt better and did not cry anymore.
Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive. From Grimm’s The Juniper Tree
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.
Early next morning the north wind woke her, and puffed himself up, and blew himself out, and made himself so stout and big. that he was gruesome to look at. Off they went high up through the air, as if they would not stop until they reached the end of the world.
Here on earth there was a terrible storm; acres of forest and many houses were blown down, and when it swept over the sea, ships wrecked by the hundred.
They tore on and on — no one can believe how far they went — and all the while they still went over the sea, and the north wind got more and more weary, and so out of breath he could barely bring out a puff, and his wings drooped and drooped, until at last he sunk so low that the tops of the waves splashed over his heels.
“Are you afraid?” said the north wind.
No, she wasn’t.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Nielsen’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.
The next morning, the princess was brought to the hill, and the king’s marshal watched. The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze, but the animals trampled the flames out. The huntsman cut off six of its heads and its tail and had the animals tear it to bits. The princess distributed her necklace among the animals, and gave the huntsman her knife, with which he cut off the dragon’s tongues. He was exhausted and told the lion to keep watch while he slept, but the lion was also exhausted, and told the bear to keep watch, and so on down to the hare, who had no one to tell to keep watch. The marshal cut off the huntsman’s head and forced the princess to promise to say that he had rescued her. From Grimm’s The Two Brothers
Visit Gallery IV to see the paintings from Kay Nielsen.