Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kay Nielsen's Fairy Tale Illustrations

(Scene from In Powder and in Crinoline.  How lovely is that flamingo?)
Once again, in my research for this blog, I stumbled across something highly interesting and extremely beautiful.  It was an illustration by artist Kay Nielsen for the book of fairy tales In Powder and in Crinoline (called Twelve Dancing Princesses in its English release) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.  The illustration was so whimsical and detailed that I had to know more about the artist and his work.  What I found was an artistic style that I had never realized even existed as well as the story of an artist whose talent was cut short in its prime.
(1, 2, GORGEOUS costume concepts!)
Kay Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1886.  After studying art in Paris, he began illustrating books of fairy tales and so became a member of a small group of artists who contributed to the "golden age of illustration" during the early part of the 20th Century.  Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and John Bauer were three other illustrators who lent their talent to this brief snippet of the Victorian Era, a snippet I find to be highly underrated.  How did I not know about these illustrations and these artists until now? I adore fairy tales, especially those that are somewhat unknown or uncommon.  For instance, Nielsen illustrated the books In Powder and in Crinoline as well as a book of Danish fairy tales: East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I have not read the tales in either of these books.  I have only glimpsed some of Neilsen's illustrations.  But I have to say, if the stories that go along with these images are half as good as their visual counterparts, then I need to get my hands on a copy ASAP!  
Inspired by the stories he had been read as a child, Kay created on paper what he saw in his mind.  His illustrations are delicate while at the same time powerful in that they are extremely memorable.  Nielsen captured the stateliness and opulence of the Victorian Era in his illustrations while at the same time infusing each image with an element of fancy that few other illustrators ever achieved.  He was highly influenced by Japanese art as evidenced by his use of blank spaces in the design, the styling of the trees, as well as the elongated figures and faces in profile.  The most obvious influence for Neilsen was Art Nouveau.  I think this is perhaps why I am so drawn to his work.  His curvature of line, use of a varied yet subtle color palette, use of geometric and floral patterns as filler and his tendency to over-detail are all tell-tale signs of the Art Nouveau influence in his work, and it is just delightful.  

His watercolors (his medium of choice for most of his illustrations) are simply a breath of fresh air.  They make me want to keep looking, keep analyzing, keep trying to discover what the story that accompanies them must be about and what secrets there might be hidden in the folds of dresses or the stars in his skies.  Though each image accompanies a story, each image is also capable of standing alone as a daring and detailed work in the Art Nouveau style.  Nielsen's visual interpretation of the stories bring them to life in a way that would not be possible or even believable in a more realistic style.  His interpretations of the characters and the mood of the story are delightfully accurate.  I just love all of the whimsy. 
(Two of Nielsen's visions for The Little Mermaid: 1, 2.  I ADORE his concept of the castle!)
Nielsen's over-the-top use of design could only have been appropriate in the world of fairy tales.  And so it should come as no surprise that Nielsen, possibly my (new) most favorite illustrator of all time, joined the Walt Disney animation team in the 1930s!  While he was there only a short while, his work can be seen in certain scenes of Fantasia and a new take on The Little Mermaid.
(Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea)
The golden age of illustration should never have ended.  When did we have "too much" of imagination?  When and why did people stop appreciating the utility, not only of fairy tales in general, but of the amazing art that illustrated equally amazing stories?  This golden age lasted only until one of two World Wars seemed to finally snuff the imagination and color out of life for many Europeans, and, in so doing, destroy the market for fairy tale illustrators like Nielsen.  Nielsen enjoyed his celebrity briefly during his lifetime and found himself poor and nearly destitute in old age.  He died in 1957.
("Then He Carried Her Home," from East of the Sun, West of the Moon)


  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVEEEEE these drawings! I want to frame them all and hang them in my room. Really, one can never go wrong with fairy tale-inspired, well, anything! Thanks for introducing me to a new favorite, Ali!

  2. I know!!! Aren't they AMAZING? I want them framed on my walls as well. I can't believe I had not heard of this guy before now!