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hero worship – Kay Nielsen

July 14, 2012

Some of the most exquisite storybook illustrations of all time were produced by Kay Nielsen. Highly stylized compositions with delicate detail and masterful use of color characterize his illustration work.

Nielsen was one of the Golden Age triumvirate which also included Arthur Rackham and Edmund DuLac. Of the three, Nielsen is my favorite, for his use of empty space in his compositions and also for the folkloric flavor that is especially present in his illustrations for East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Depth in his work is often indicated by the fore- mid- and backgrounds presented as a series of planes, like sets on stage.  Not surprising, since his parents were both theatre people and Kay himself also created stage sets and scenery.

“Don’t drink!” cried out the little Princess, springing
to her feet; “I would rather marry a gardener!” – from the Twelve Dancing Princesses, in Powder and Crinoline

Another recurring motif in his work is the arch form – reminiscent of a proscenium arch or maybe the rainbow bridge to Asgard:

From East of the Sun, West of the Moon

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The arch has also been referred to as a Hiroshige wave. Nielsen grew up with Asian art that had be collected by his grandfather. Japanese woodcuts were an influence on him, as they were on Art Nouveau in general.

The work of Aubrey Beardsley was another influence, as acknowledged by Kay himself.

Biography — a tale with a sad ending.

Kay’s active  illustration career spanned the years of 1913 – to around 1930; only 20 years. He enjoyed success and fame with his very first books, In Powder and Crinoline and East of the Sun and West of the Moon. More popular illustrated books and theatrical designs followed.


design concept for Night on Bald Mountain

In 1937, he went to work for Walt Disney Studios, where his designs were used for the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria sequences in Fantasia. He also supplied design and concept for other Disney vehicles, but his working methods were out of synch with the pace needed in an animation studio. He was let go from Disney after four years to find that his illustration style had gone out of fashion. Friends and admirers assisted him with living expenses and a few commissions, but sadly he died in poverty.

Friends also preserved his originals, some of which had never been published. David Larkin and Hildegarde Flanner produced “The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen” in 1984.

It was also David Larkin who edited a 1975 compilation of illustrations which brought Kay Nielsen’s work back into prominence after a long period of neglect. Around the same time, there were fresh editions of the work of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, and a resurgence of interest in Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts movements in general.

On a personal note, Larkin’s book was an important one for me. The styles popular in the late 19th and early 20th century had been out of style for so long, and contrasted so strongly with the design elements of the  ruthlessly clean and modern style that was popular at the time, that one felt a thrill of discovery to find such sensitive artwork where detail and ornamentation were important elements.  Larkin’s first book on Kay Nielsen appeared when I was developing my own style and looking for something fresh to admire. I clasped the golden-age crew to my besmocked bosom. They’ve been joined by other favorites over the years, but I have never let them go.

More pictures and writing on Kay Nielsen:

University of Pittsburgh – gen-u-wine scholarship



octopus vs squirrel – examples of b/w work

sur la lune – where you can view examples and buy goodies with the images

endicott studio

books on Amazon, of course.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul M Robinson permalink
    July 14, 2012 8:21 pm

    Know of her and love her work as well. We will have to share our art influences more often. Blessings, friend! ~ Paul

  2. October 30, 2012 5:23 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of this illustrator. While I did not recognize the name, I knew immediately that I had seen the illustrations before. Amazing.

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