Kay Nielsen, his career and works
Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) is considered by many to be among the leading artists associated with "The Golden Age of Illustration" (a period that is typically placed between the 1880s and the 1930s).
Nielsen's first published commission included a suite of monotone and full colour illustrations for In Powder and Crinoline (1913) - a collection of modern fairy tales compiled by Arthur Quiller-Couch. A year later, his illustrations for the Norse fairy tales collected by Asbjörnsen and Moe - considered by many to be among his masterpieces - were published in East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914). Following World War I, Nielsen produced other great works, including illustrations for Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson (1923) and other collections of fairy tales published in Hansel and Gretel and other Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1925) and Red Magic (1930).
Nielsen also prepared illustrations for titles that were not fated for publication in books - such as his suite known as "The Book of Death" and designs inspired by the tragic tale of Pierrot.
Further, he prepared designs to special commissions, including those published in the 1913 Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News - the four illustration set known as "Perrault in Powder and Patch". Another three very special images prepared by Nielsen - known as "Scenes from the Life of Joan of Arc" - were published with text from "The Monk of Fife" - a romance of the days of Jeanne D'Arc. A further extensive suite of images was prepared by Nielsen prior to 1923 for a version of Scheherazadè's classic Persian fairy tales - those known as "The Arabian Nights" - but that collection was not published due to scarce resources in Denmark following World War I.
Following his emigration to the United States, Nielsen found work with Disney developing concept artwork for a number of fairy tale projects. The most recognized work with Disney from Nielsen may be the "Bald Mountain/Ave Maria" sequence in Fantasia (1940). Nielsen did, however, also contribute artwork for projects following Fantasia (1940), including what has been identified as its potential sequel, "The Ride of the Valkyries" (this did not go beyond the concept stage), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989).
After Nielsen separated from Disney in the early 1940s, his substantial artistic work seems to have been restricted to a number of commissions for major murals throughout California.
While we have provided links for various products available through Amazon throughout this Hub, you may also like to consider the wider range available at the Kay Nielsen Collection shown at the 'Spirit of the Ages' Museum.
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "In Powder and Crinoline" (1913)
In Powder and Crinoline (1913) is a selection of fairy tales compiled and translated by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - an English critic, writer and compiler - but the concept for the project, including the title, originated with the illustrator - a then, young, Kay Nielsen.
For the Limited Edition, 26 color illustrations from Nielsen were published - only 24 of the color illustrations appeared in the trade edition.
The superb illustrations contributed by Kay Nielsen and his creativity in proposed the project are acknowledged by Quiller-Couch in his Foreword thus:
"The genius of the young artist who has illustrated this book may be left to speak for itself, as it assuredly will: but I will say a word about the title, which is also of his invention.
When Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton told me that Mr. Kay Nielsen wished to employ his pencil upon a volume of Fairy Tales, to be called "In Powder and Crinoline", I answered that the title and the notion it conveyed were, in my opinion, capital".
The tales comprising In Powder and Crinoline (1913) include: 'Minon-Minette'; 'Felicia or The Pot of Pinks'; 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses'; 'Rosanie or The Inconstant Prince'; 'The Man Who Never Laughed'; 'John and the Ghosts'; and 'The Czarina's Violet'.
Nielsen's colour illustrations were completed for this contribution throughout 1912 and 1913 and for the reproduced images, Nielsen insisted on a 4-colour process - in contrast to the 3-colour process typically used by his contemporaries, including Arthur Rackham.
The illustrations draw on a number of artistic tradition, but are typical of Nielsen's idiosyncratic style - "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales" describing his contribution to "In Powder and Crinoline" thus:
"Nielsen's objects and people are highly stylised: foxglove blossoms hang in measured asymmetry; princes and princesses stand on improbably long legs; and their garments billow in gravity-defying parabolas".
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" (1914)
Nielsen's color illustrations were completed for this contribution throughout 1913 and 1914. As with his images for In Powder and Crinoline (1913), the color illustrations were reproduced with a 4-color process. Comment within the Preface to East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914) describes the images contributed by Nielsen beautifully:
"A Folk-Tale, in its primitive plainness of word and entire absence of complexity in thought, is peculiarly sensitive and susceptible to the touch of stranger hands; and he who has been able to acquaint himself with the Norske Folkeeventyr of Asbjörnsen and Moe (from which these stories are selected), has an advantage over the reader of an English rendering. Of this advantage Mr. Kay Nielsen has fully availed himself: and the exquisite bizarrerie of his drawings aptly expresses the innermost significance of the old-world, old-wives' fables. For to term these legends, Nursery Tales, would be to curtail them, by nine-tenths, of their interest. They are the romances of the childhood of Nations: they are the never-failing springs of sentiment, of sensation, of heroic example, from which primeval peoples drank their fill at will. The quaintness, the tenderness, the grotesque yet realistic intermingling of actuality with supernaturalism, by which the original Norske Folkeeventyr are characterized, will make an appeal to all, as represented in the pictures of Kay Nielsen. And these imperishable traditions, whose bases are among the very roots of antiquity, are here reincarnated in line and color, to the delight of all who ever knew or now shall know them".
The 15 tales in the version illustrated by Nielsen include: 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon'; 'The Blue Belt'; 'Prince Lindworm'; 'The Lassie and her Godmother'; 'The Husband who was to mind the House'; 'The Lad who went to the North Wind'; 'The Three Princesses of Whiteland'; 'Sophia Moria Castle'; 'The Giant who had no Heart in his Body'; 'The Princess on the Glass Hill'; 'The Widow's Son'; 'The Three Billy-goats Gruff'; 'The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain'; 'The Cat on the Dovrefell'; and 'One's own Children are always Prettiest'.
Contemporary reviews of Nielsen's illustrations were most favorable and included the following comment in The New York Times (December 20, 1914):
"Mr Nielsen is a newcomer among illustrators, and he deserves a royal welcome, for his lines are beautiful, and he has a powerful imagination, a sense of the supernatural which makes him particularly successful in the interpretation of the curious old Norse folk tales which fill this sumptuous volume".
Kay Nielsen's designs for "Perrault in Powder and Patch"
Kay Nielsen was commissioned by The Illustrated London News, to illustrate four French fairy tales: "Le Belle au Bois Dormant" ("The Sleeping Beauty"); "Le Chat Botté" ("Puss in Boots"); "Cendrillon" ("Cinderella"); and "La Barbe Bleue" ("Bluebeard").
Within the plate, the images are signed by Kay Nielsen and dated 1913. The images are accompanied within the Christmas Edition by condensed versions of the full tales.
"Cinderella" by Kay Nielsen
When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, "Cinderella" was associated with the following text:
"A man once took as his second wife a proud woman, who had two daughters of a like disposition. He himself had one young daughter, who was sweet and kind, as her mother had been. The stepmother gave her all the vilest tasks of the house, while her step-sisters lived in luxury, but the poor child endured it all patiently. When her work was done she would sit among the cinders on the hearth: so she was called Cendrillon. One day the King's son invited the two sisters to a ball. Cendrillon helped them dress, and did their hair, but when they had gone she wept. Her godmother, who was a Fairy, finding her in tears, bade her bring a pumpkin from the garden, six lizards, and six mice and a rat from the traps. The pumpkin she changed into a gilded coach, the rat into a coachman, the lizards into lacqueys, and the mice into six grey horses. Cendrillon's ragged clothes became robes of silver and gold, flashing with jewels, and her godmother also gave her two dear little glass slippers. She warned her not to stay at the ball beyond midnight, else all would change back into their former shapes. The King's son was charmed with Cendrillon, but before midnight she disappeared, so the next evening he gave another ball. As the clock began striking midnight she suddenly fled from the palace, losing one of her glass slippers as she ran. The Prince proclaimed that he would marry the maiden on whose foot it fit perfectly. When the heralds came to Cendrillon's home her sisters mocked when she asked to put it on, but it fitted her foot exactly, and they she produced its fellow from her pocket. Just then her godmother arrived, and changed her rags into a dress more splendid than before. Her sisters recognised with amazement the lovely Princess who was at the ball. Cendrillon forgave them, and when she married the Prince she brought them to the palace and found them husbands in two noble couriers".
"Puss in Boots" by Kay Nielsen
When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, "Puss in Boots" was associated with the following text:
"A miller, at his death, left to his eldest son his mill, to the second his ass, and to the youngest his cat. The third son was bewailing his lot when the cat said: "Only give me a sack, and a pair of boots for going in the brambles, and you will see that you are not so badly provided for." Having trapped a rabbit in his sack, the cat presented it to the King from his master, "The Marquis of Carabas." From time to time he took the King other gifts of game. One day, hearing that his Majesty would go a-driving with his daughter by a river, Puss bade his master go bathe in the stream, and when the King drove by, cried out, "Help! Help! the Marquis of Carabas is drowning!" The King sent his servants to save him while the cat declared that thieves had stolen his master's clothes, so his Majesty had some of his own brought for the Marquis to put on. He looked so brave in them that the princess fell in love with him, and he with her. Thecat ran on before the carriage, telling all the peasants reaping that, if they did not say that the land belonged to the Marquis of Carabas, they would be cut to pieces. So when the King inquired, that all replied, "To the Marquis of Carabas, your Majesty." At length the Cat came to a great castle where dwelt an ogre, the real owner of those domains. "I am told," said the Cat to the Ogre, "that you can change into all kind of animals." Thereupon the Ogre became a lion, and Puss though sore afraid, remarked: "I can scarce believe that you could also change into the smallest animals, such as a rat or a mouse." Straightway the Ogre became a mouse, whereon Puss pounced upon him and devoured him. When the King arrived, Puss welcomed him to the castle of the Marquis of Carabas. His Majesty presently asked the Marquis to come his son-in-law, and so the miller's youngest son married the Princess that very day".
"The Sleeping Beauty" by Kay Nielsen
When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, "The Sleeping Beauty" was associated with the following text:
"A King and Queen, long childless, to their sorrow, rejoiced greatly when at last a daughter was born to them. Seven fairies stood sponsor at her baptism, but there appeared also an old fairy, unbidden, for all believed her dead or bewitched. She, deeming herself slighted, after six Fairies had bestowed good gifts on the child, declared that the Princess should prick her hand with a spindle and die. Now the seventh Fairy, foreseeing this malicious intent, had waited to the end to make her own gift, and pronounced that the maiden should not die, but sleep for a hundred years. The King proclaimed that none should spin in his kingdom, nor possess a spindle. But when the Princess was about sixteen years old, in a turret of a certain castle she chanced upon an ancient dame who sat and span, having never heard the King's command. The Princess took the spindle, and, pricking herself therewith, fell into a trance. Seeing the doom was fulfilled, the King bade them lay the Princess on a fair bed, with raiment of gold and silver. The good Fairy came, at his behest, and touched with her wand all that were in the castle, and made great trees grow up about it. After a hundred years, the son of the King then reigning, who was of another family than that of the Princess, one day while hunting perceived the thick and lofty wood. From an ancient henchman he learned that in a castle within that wood lay the loveliest Princess in the world, doomed to sleep for a hundred years until wakened by a King's son. Then the Prince entered the wood, where none before him had been able to go, and coming to the castle, found the chamber where the Princess lay. He knelt and kissed her and the charm was ended. She awoke, and with her the whole court, and, after they had partaken of a banquet, the Prince and Princess were wedded in the castle chapel".
"Bluebeard" by Kay Nielsen
When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, "Bluebeard" was associated with the following text:
"Once there lived a man who, though very rich, unfortunately had a blue beard, which made him so ugly and terrible that every woman shunned hum. Now a lady of quality who dwelt near had two fair daughters, and Bluebeard asked for one of them in marriage. Neither wished to wed a man with a blue beard, and what they misliked the more was that he had already married several wives, andnone knew what had become of them. Nevertheless, Bluebeard entertained them so hospitably that at length the younger began to find that his beard was not so blue after all. The marriage took place, and after a month Bluebeard told his wife that he must make a journey. He bade her make good cheer with her friends during his absence, and gave her all his keys: but one little key - that of a certain cupboard - he forbade her to use on pain of his exceeding wrath. Curiosity, however, overcame her. She opened the cupboard, and found therein the bodies of his murdered wives. Bluebeard returned, and, seeing blood upon the little key, told her she must die. Weeping, she begged for a little time to pray, and be allowed he allowed her half a quarter of an hour. Then se called her sister, and said: "Sister Anne, climb to the top of the tower to see if my brothers are coming, and sign to them to hasten." And many times she called, "Sister Anne, see you nothing coming?" and each time Sister Anne replied, "I see nothing but the sun shining and the grass growing green." Bluebeard, the while, waited below with a great cutlass in his hand. Sister Anne saw a cloud of dust, but it was only a block of sheep. Then at length she cried: "I see two horsemen coming, but they are far away." Bluebeard had just seized his wife's hair and raised his cutlass to strike off her head when at that moment her brothers rushed in and slew him".
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "Scenes from the Life of Joan of Arc" (1914)
Within the plate, these images are signed by Kay Nielsen and dated 1914. Accompanying the title for two of the images, there is a relevant quote from Lang's The Monk of Fife. Each of the images is presented in an integrated mille fleur border in the manner adopted by Nielsen some ten years later for his illustrations to Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen (1923). The designs were published progressively in special editions of The Illustrated London News.
The first design (from top to bottom) is known as "How Joan the Maid of Lorraine saw visions and was called upon to deliver France". When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, that image was associated with the following text:
"In those days the Lord stirred up the spirit of a certain marvelous Maiden, born on the borders of France, in the duchy of Lorraine, and the see of Toul, towards the Imperial territories. This Maiden her father and mother employed in tending sheep; daily, too, did she handle the distaff; man's love she knew not: no sin, as it is said, was found in her; to her innocence the neighbors bore witness".
The second design (from top to bottom) is known as "How Joan the Maid suffered Martyrdom at the Stake in the Market-Place of Rouen". When first published in the Christmas Edition of The Illustrated London News, that image was associated with the following text:
"I ever hoped for some miracle, even as her Saints had promised. But it was their will that she should be made perfect through suffering, and being set free through the gate of fire, should win her victory over unfaith and mortal fear. Wherefore I stood afar off at the end, seeing nothing of what befell; yet I clearly heard, as did all men there, the last word of her sweet voice, and the cry of 'Jhesus!'".
The third design (from top to bottom) is known as "The most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian Calendar".
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson" (1923)
Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson, as illustrated by Kay Nielsen, was first published in 1923 in very limited numbers to promote the Kay Nielsen Exhibition at The Leicester Galleries in the closing months of the year. That promotional pre-release Edition is distinguished from copies published in 1924 (those copies traditionally identified as First Editions) by the decoratively gilt-stamped blue cloth cover and the inclusion of the advertising pamphlet promoting the Exhibition at The Leicester Galleries.
The tales comprising the collection include: 'The Tinder Box'; 'Great Claus and Little Claus'; 'The Real Princess'; 'The Hardy Tin Soldier'; 'The Flying Trunk'; 'Old Luk-Oie'; 'The Swineherd'; 'The Nightingale'; 'The Snow Queen'; 'The Red Shoes'; 'The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper'; 'The Shadow'; 'The Shirt Collar'; 'The Bottle-Neck'; 'The Elder Tree Mother'; and 'The Story of a Mother'.
The suite of illustrations prepared for publication by Nielsen includes a selection of 16 tales from Hans Christian Anderson - the 19th Century Danish author and poet. Nielsen's images marked his return to contributions to commissioned illustrated books following World War I and his subsequent involvement in the Danish theatre.
Nielsen provided a range of illustrations for Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson (1923) including: color illustration prepared with integrated formal and informal borders (each of the borders for every image was unique and the informal borders were produced in a style reminiscent of millefleur); full-page woodblocks; and marginal illustrations.
Nielsen's colour images published in the pre-release promotional Edition are superb and are of a qualitatively higher standard than even the images appearing in the First Editions published in 1924. The clarity of the illustrations, the subtle movement of colour and the tones of the rendering are an absolute delight.
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "Hansel and Gretel and other stories by the Brothers Grimm" (1925)
Hansel and Gretel and other stories by the Brothers Grimm was co-published in 1925 by Hodder and Stoughton, London (for the market supplied through the United Kingdom) and by George H Doran Company, New York (for the United States market). A later French-language First Edition, Fleur-de-Neige et d'Autres Contes de Grimm, was published by H Piazza (Paris) in 1929 with a stunning suite of marginal monotone illustrations designed by Pierre Courtois.
The tales included from the Brothers Grimm in this anthology include: 'Hansel and Gretel'; 'The Six Swans'; 'Little Brother and Little Sister'; 'The Fisherman and His Wife'; 'The Drummer'; 'Rosebud'; 'The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle'; 'Snowdrop'; 'Jorinde and Joringel'; 'The Goose Girl'; 'Clever Alice'; 'Cherry; or, The Frog Bride'; 'The Three Little Men in the Wood'; 'The Valiant Little Tailor'; 'Roland'; 'The Juniper Tree'; 'Rapunzel'; 'The Three Magic Gifts'; 'Catskin'; 'The Golden Goose'; 'Rumpelstiltskin'; and 'The Two Brothers'.
The review published in The Outlook (Vol. 144; 1926) provided the following comment on the book and Nielsen's illustrations:
"There is no more beautiful holiday book than Kay Nielsen's "Hansen and Gretel", pale symbols melting into paler backgrounds; planes of action, successive stages of one idea bordering on expressionism".
Nielsen's contribution to this publication are superb examples of high Art Nouveau and are typically lush with sensual composition and extraordinary detail. In the larger format - and showing the illustrations with the original integrated ornamental borders - these are particularly rare illustrations, with less than 2,100 copies published in the English-language First Editions.
Kay Nielsen's illustrations for "Red Magic" (1930)
Red Magic (1930) was the final illustrated book to include commissioned color contributions from Kay Nielsen.
It is a collection of 20 fairy-tales compiled by Florence Roma Muir Wilson who was known by the literary pseudonym of Romer Wilson.
The tales collected by Wilson in this title include: 'The Reward of Virtue'; 'The Story of the Three Bears'; 'Bluebeard'; 'Rich Peter the Pedlar'; 'Hawk and Mole'; 'A Child's Dream of a Star'; 'Bean Flower and Pea Blossom'; 'The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse'; 'King Uggermugger; or, The Princess Silver-Silk'; 'The Bear and the Hunter's Stepson'; 'At the Door'; 'The Six Swans'; 'The Enchanted Hind'; 'Mrs Tabitha Tortoiseshel'; 'Bel and the Dragon'; 'St George and the Dragon'; 'The Dragon of Wantley'; 'The Chimæra'; 'Bash-Chalek; or, True Steel'; and 'Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp'.
Comment within The International Studio (Vol. 101, 1931) provides an insight into the contemporary reception that Nielsen's suite received upon publication:
"It is a pleasure to see a child's book of fairy tales in which conception, selection, illustration and typographical rendering makes such a harmonious whole ... [t]he line illustrations both embellish and illustrate the themes in a manner intelligible and acceptable to children without once stopping to saccharine fancy, while the 8 color plates have a delightful freshness and cleanness".
In both design and pure number, the combination of monotone and color illustrations contributed by Nielsen is sumptuous - with the color images including gilt highlights.
Is there a most popular suite of illustrations by Kay Nielsen?
"Knight Olaf" by Kay Nielsen
This design by Nielsen was inspired by "Elveskud", a traditional Danish ballad that describes a fatal enchantment placed on Knight Olaf by an Elf-King's Daughter. That ballad has close parallels throughout Europe (a well-known English parallel is "Clerk Colvill").
One variant of "Elveskud" - published by Peder Syd in 1695 - follows:
Many ride tall and red,
is though morning crank and dead.
Sir Oluf he rides so far to his wedding to offer his hand,
and the dance goes so lightly through the grove.
There dances four, and there dances five,
elfkings daughter bids her hand.
"Welcome Sir Oluf, let your burdens go,
stay a little, and dance with me."
I don't dare, I may not:
tomorrow I will be wed.
Listen, Sir Oluf, dance with me,
two Ramskin boots I will give you.
Two ramskin boots fits well around legs,
gilded spurs buckled on.
Listen, Sir Oluf, dance with me,
a silk shirt I will give you.
A silk shirt so nice and white,
my mother bleached it in the moonlight.
I don't dare, I don't have to:
tomorrow I will be wed.
Listen, Sir Oluf, dance with me,
a golden head I will give you.
A golden head I can receive,
but dancing with you I dare not.
And if you do not want to dance with me,
pestilence, and disease will follow you.
She hit him between his shoulders,
never had he been hit harder.
She lifted Sir Oluf onto the horse red,
"ride back to your sworn maiden".
Then he came to his castle gate,
that his mother is resting beside.
Listen, Sir Oluf, my son,
why are your cheeks so pale?
My cheeks are pale,
because I've been in the elf-wives gate.
Listen, Sir Oluf, my son so proud,
what should I tell your young bride?
I will say, I'm outside in the grove,
to ride my horse, and try my dogs.
Then in the morning, day it was,
came the bride in her bridesdress.
They gave me mead, they gave me wine,
where is Sir Oluf, my groom?
Sir Oluf rode into the grove,
he's trying his horse, and his dogs.
She took up the scarlet red,
there lay Oluf, and he was dead.
Early in morning, day it was,
there comes three corpses off Sir Oluf's farm.
Sir Oluf and his bride to be, his mother died from sorrow,
but the dance goes lightly through the grove.
"The Marsh King's Daughter" by Kay Nielsen
For this most moving design, as is typical of Nielsen's work, he has combined a number of elements from the tale to craft an illustration of incredible power, with such elements including: burial mounds; Vikings risen from the dead; Dragons and Goblins; and the risen Christian Priest and the Marsh King's Daughter.
From within the tale, it may be that the image is most closely linked to the following passage:
"Then he lifted her on the horse and gave her a golden censer, similar to those she had already seen at the Viking's house. A sweet perfume arose from it, while the open wound in the forehead of the slain priest, shone with the rays of a diamond. He took the cross from the grave, and held it aloft, and now they rode through the air over the rustling trees, over the hills where warriors lay buried each by his dead war-horse; and the brazen monumental figures rose up and galloped forth, and stationed themselves on the summits of the hills. The golden crescent on their foreheads, fastened with golden knots, glittered in the moonlight, and their mantles floated in the wind. The dragon,that guards buried treasure, lifted his head and gazed after them. The goblins and the satyrs peeped out from beneath the hills, and flitted to and fro in the fields, waving blue, red, and green torches, like the glowing sparks in burning paper. Over woodland and heath, flood and fen, they flew on, till they reached the wild moor, over which they hovered in broad circles. The Christian priest held the cross aloft, and it glittered like gold, while from his lips sounded pious prayers. Beautiful Helga’s voice joined with his in the hymns he sung, as a child joins in her mother’s song. She swung the censer, and a wonderful fragrance of incense arose from it; so powerful, that the reeds and rushes of the moor burst forth into blossom. Each germ came forth from the deep ground: all that had life raised itself. Blooming water-lilies spread themselves forth like a carpet of wrought flowers, and upon them lay a slumbering woman, young and beautiful.Helga fancied that it was her own image she saw reflected in the still water. But it was her mother she beheld, the wife of the Marsh King, the princess from the land of the Nile".