Kay Nielsen
(Danish, 1886-1957)

Kay Nielsen was perhaps one of the few Scandinavian illustrators whose work broke free of the boundaries of his homeland, and also received a 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 when he was 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: fairy tales, and similar children's stories. His masterpiece is considered by most to be one the pillars of the twentieth-century gift book market-- East of the Sun and West of the Moon by George Webbe Dasent. Nielsen's edition was put out by Harrap in 1914, and featured 25 color plates and numerous drawings.

Following World War I, Nielsen combined his talent as a designed 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, at 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 artists who had grown accustomed to the pace of book work usually did not last long in the field of animation.

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 Over forty canvases of unpublished Arabian Nights images-- most of which were done when he was working on Aladdin for the Danish Theatre in 1923-- were fortunately rescued by his neighbors,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.