Kay Nielsen

November 16, 2009


Date of Birth:
Kay Nielsen was born in 1886 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Both Nielson’s mother and father were involved in the Danish theater as celebrated actors. His father, Professor Martunius Nielsen later became the managing director of the Dagmar Theater in Copenhagen. As a result of his background, Nielsen grew up surrounded by celebrities of the Scandinavian theater.1

Influences besides his teachers include his grandfather who brought back art from China such as Japanese woodcuts which can be seen in his asymmetrical compositions, large vacant areas, flattened perspective and sinuous line work.2 Aubrey Beardsley’s work and characteristics are reiterated and play a significant influence in Nielsen’s work such as his “floral style and elongated figures.”3 The Art Nouveau movement was characterized by long smooth curving lines and open spaces, both of which Nielsen was known for.

Around the age of twelve he was taken out of school and tutored at home. There he considered taking up a career in medicine but soon left home to study art in Montparnasse at the Academies Julian under teachers such as Paul Laurence and Kristian Krag where his work mostly reflected that of nature even though he preferred to produce work from readings and imagination.

Works of Note:

Illustrator Miscellany:
Starting in 1912 Nielsen had several commissions held in London. The first was at Dowdswel Galleries showing his Book of Death, a collection of black and white drawings, which are now believed to be in private collections or possibly lost.4 In 1913 “In Powder and Crinoline” was Nielsen’s first published gift edition book. Some critics believed some of his series of illustrations to be “menacing and grotesque,” however some were light and transient. Nielsen stage designed for the Copenhagen Royal Theater, which allowed him to think much like a designer. His designing skills can clearly be seen in “In Powder and Crinoline which was later published in America as “Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

Nielsen was married to Ulla Pless-Schmidt in 1926, the daughter of a wealthy physician.6 He resided in Denmark until he departed for Los Angeles in ’36 to work on a production with his life long friend, actor and producer, Johannes Poulsen. Poulsen soon passed away and during this period Nielsen began to work for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He is most known for Fantasia’s The Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria segments. With the onset of WWII, Nielsen settled into living in southern Los Angeles with his wife but soon fell on hard times and was somewhat financially dependent on friends. There was a shift in art popularity after WWII from fantasy to “realism and naturalism” which caused the inevitability losing his popularity, however there was a return in importance of Golden Age illustrators among collectors, which aroused more exposure for Nielsen’s past work.

Nielsen’s last displayed work was in the form of murals for Junior High Schools in the Los Angeles area. Jasmine Britton, a board member of a philanthropic foundation, commissioned him.6 The first mural was The First Spring, and it depicted the lines from the Genesis section of the bible. “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth on the earth after his kind, and God saw that it was good.”6 It is said to be one of the most beautifully painted murals in America. The mural had to be restored shortly after it’s hanging because it was removed very carelessly. Nielsen was commissioned to do three more mural paintings over the next few years of his life. Over those few years of painting murals, Nielsen had a chronic cough. He died in June of 1957 at age 71. His funeral took place in the Wong Chapel in Los Angeles, beneath a mural he had been commissioned to paint.

After World War I, Nielsen’s illustration career came to a halt. He decided to travel back to Copenhagen where he participated in stage design. He made costumes for Aladdin along with mounting other stage productions such as “The Tempest” and a “Midsummer’s night Dream.” In 1924,Nielsen’s career was revived with a completed 24 color plates of the Brother’s Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel with an exhibit at the Leicester Galleries. In 1930, his final illustrated book “Red Magic” was exhibited at Leicester Square.

Examination of Materials:
Neilson works with an ink and watercolor technique. His illustrations have been reprinted in a variety of tones.

Style Analysis

Nielsen’s project “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” is arguably his best work to date. Published in 1915, the illustrations are folk legends of Scandinavia which include, The Black Bull of Norroway, The Brown Bear of Norway, The Daughter of the Skies, The King of Love, The Enchanted Pig, The Tale of the Hoodie, Master Semolina The Sprig of Rosemary, The Enchanted Snake, and White-Bear-King-Valemon in the Norwegian version.5 The themes are very similar to the Hellenistic romance of Eros and Psyche. The Swedish version is called “Prince Hat under the Ground.” Some believe because Nielsen grew up with the tales, this gives reason for the outstanding combination of illustration and story line. The tales depict snowy landscapes and polar bears, all of which Nielsen is used to seeing in his homeland. Nielsen’s 25 watercolors of the Nordic tales of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” define his career as an unsurpassable illustrator of fairy tales.

Next Thursday evening the White Bear came to fetch her. She seated herself on his back with her bundle, and thus they departed. When they had gone a great part of the way, the White Bear said: “Are you afraid?”
“No, that I am not,” said she.
“Keep tight hold of my fur, and then there is no danger,” said he.

~ from “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”

This illustration from “East of the Sun West of the Moon” Andrew Lang’s collection of Blue Fairy books never ceases to amaze me. In my opinion, I believe Kay Nielsen has portrayed the story of the white bear better than any other illustrator could have.  This piece is very different from a lot of the his other work in that it is a lot less whimsical and noisy in figures and costume design such as in “In Powder and Crinoline”. In this scene there is a very simple flattened perspective of a great mountain they have walked across. There is clearly influence of Art Nouveau in this piece for perfectly placed open space along with the long curving lines in the polar bear’s anatomy and the delicate curving ornamental tree positioned in the foreground. It was done in the medium of watercolors with what looks like an outline of pen and ink on the daughter, the bear and the tree. It was reprinted in a variety of tones. This scene reiterates that Nielsen’s work is purely out of the ordinary world and takes us into a level of fantasy that truly makes his illustrations stand out.

– Marissa Fanelli, Spring 2009


1 Commire, Ann. Something About The Author. Detroit: Gale Research Book Tower, 1979.

2 Meyer, Susan. A Treasury Of The Great Children’s Book Illustrators. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983.

3 Hutter, Heribert. Art Nouveau. Trans. by J. R. Foster. New York: Crown, 1965.

4 Larkin, David, ed. Kay Nielsen. With an introduction by Keith Nicholson. Toronto: Peacock Press, 1975.

5 “ENR Illustrators Project: Kay Nielsen.” University Library System ULS University of Pittsburgh. Ed. Sally Michalski, Michelle Frisque, Beth Keen, and Elizabeth T. Mahoney. Web. 21 Oct. 2009. <http://www.library.pitt.edu/libraries/is/enroom/illustrators/nielsen.htm#secondary&gt;.

6 “ENR Illustrators Project: Kay Nielsen.” University Library System ULS University of Pittsburgh. Ed. Sally Michalski, Michelle Frisque, Beth Keen, and Elizabeth T. Mahoney. Web. 21 Oct. 2009. <http://www.library.pitt.edu/libraries/is/enroom/illustrators/nielsen.htm#secondary&gt;.


2 Responses to “Kay Nielsen”

  1. muralmama Says:

    this stuff is amazing… anyone know of good teachers of illustration that have this sort of style? I’m looking into schools of illustration, I like the idea of studying in Denmark or north-eastern Europe in fact… any suggestions on how to search for teachers of illustration based on their work?

  2. bethpost Says:

    You should check out Durwin Talon at Emily Carr- it’s in Vancouver.

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