Kay Nielsen
(Danish, 1886-1957)
korshak illustration collection, imaginative literature, fantasy illustration, science fiction illustration, sci-fi artist, illustration artists, illustration collection, science fiction collection, pulp fiction collection, illustration exhibit

Kay Nielsen was perhaps one of the few Scandinavian illustrators whose work broke free of the boundaries of his homeland and received great reception in the United States. Born into a family of theatrical artists, his style was a mixture of elements, combining some of the decorative design of Art Nouveau with the bold shapes of Art Deco. Leaving Denmark at the age of seventeen, he spent seven years studying art in Paris. His success was bright but fleeting. From 1913-1930, Nielsen contributed to the illustrations of at least five books of fairy tales and similar children's stories. East of the Sun and West of the Moon by George Webbe Dasent (Harrap, 1914) to which Nielsen contributed 25 paintings and numerous drawings, is considered Nielsen’s masterpiece and was a pillar of the 20th century gift book market.

 

Following World War I, Nielsen combined his talent as a designer with the knowledge of the theater learned from his parents. Until 1923, he was the chief stage designer at the Danish State Theatre.

 

Nielsen and his wife moved to the United States in 1936 to pursue opportunities in theater design. In California, the growing industry for image makers was in the field of animation, and Nielsen contributed his sketches later that year to Walt Disney Studios. Some of his influence can be noted in scenes from the 1940 animated film Fantasia. Animation was very demanding in its nature, and Nielsen had grown accustomed to the pace of book work; his contributions at Disney did not last long.

 

In the early 1940s, he was hired to paint large murals for schools in Los Angeles. The murals were well received, and Nielsen hoped it might be a precursor to better times. His health was already frail by then and it soon deteriorated further. When he died in 1957, he had been struggling for years to find work. Over forty canvases of unpublished Arabian Nights images-- most of which were done when he was working on Aladdin for the Danish Theatre in 1923-- were fortunately rescued by his neighbors, though they were not published until 1977.

 

Menges, Jeff A. 101 Great Illustrators from the Golden Age, 1890-1925. Published by Dover Publications. Mineola, New York, 2016. p. 136.