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Kay Nielsen (whose first name is pronounced "kigh"), (1886-1957) was a Danish illustrator who was popular in the early 20th century, the "golden age of illustration" which lasted from when Daniel Vierge and other pioneers developed printing technology to the point that drawings and paintings could be reproduced with reasonable facility, He joined the ranks of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in enjoying the success of the gift books of the early 20th century. This fad lasted until roughly the end of World War II when economic changes made it more difficult to make a profit from elaborately illustrated books.

Born in Copenhagen into an artistic family, his father was director of the Royal Danish Theatre. He studied art in Paris from 1904 to 1911, and then lived in England from about 1911 to 1916. He received his first English commission from Hodder and Stoughton to illustrate a collection of fairytales, providing 24 colour plates and more than 15 monotone illustrations - In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1913. In the same year, Nielsen was also commissioned by The Illustrated London News to produce a set of four illustrations to accompany the tales of Charles Perrault - with the images for 'Le Belle au Bois Dormant' ('Sleeping Beauty'), 'Le Chat Botté' ('Puss in Boots'), 'Cendrillon' ('Cinderella') and 'La Barbe Bleue' ('Bluebeard') being published in the 1913 Christmas Edition.

A year later, he also provided 25 colour plates and more than 21 monotone images for the children's collection East of The Sun West of The Moon, old tales from the North, 1914.[1] The colour images for both In Powder and Crinoline and East of the Sun and West of the Moon were reproduced by a 4-colour process - in contrast to many of the illustrations prepared by his contemporaries that characteristically utilised a traditional 3-colour process. In 1914, too, Nielsen produced at least three illustrations depicting scenes from the life of Joan of Arc (when published later in the 1920s, those images were associated with relevant text from The Monk of Fife).

Meanwhile he painted (in tempera) landscapes in the Dover area. Nielsen came into contact with The Society of Tempera Painters where he learned new skills, and was able to reduce the time involved in the process. In 1917 he left for New York where there was an exhibition of his work and subsequently returned to Denmark. Together with a collaborator, Johannes Poulsen, he painted stage scenery for the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. During that time, Nielsen also worked on an extensive suite of illustrations intended to accompany a translation of Scheherazade's classic tales known as Arabian Nights that had been undertaken by the Arabic scholar, Professor Arthur Christensen (Nielsen notes that the prospective title was Thousand Nights and a Night). According to Nielsen's own published comments, these illustrations were to be the basis of his return to book illustrations following a hiatus during World War I and the intention had been to publish the Danish version in parallel with versions for the English-speaking world (to be published in Great Britain and the United States) and the French market (to be published in Paris). That project, however, never came to fruition and those wonderful illustrations remained relatively unknown until many years after Nielsen's death.

Following his theatrical work in Copenhagen, Nielsen returned to contributing to illustrated books with the publication of Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen in 1924. That title included 12 colour plates and more than 40 monotone illustrations - the colour images were prepared with integrated formal and informal borders; the informal borders were produced in a mille fleur-type style. A year later, his superb contribution to Hansel and Gretel, and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm was first published with 12 colour images and over 20 detailed monotone illustrations. A further 5 years passed before the publication of Red Magic - the final title to be illustrated comprehensively by Nielsen: the 1930 version of Red Magic included 8 colour and more than 50 monotone contributions from the Danish artist.

In 1939 he left for California and worked for Hollywood companies, including The Walt Disney Company, where his work was used in the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences of Fantasia. In 1940 he was laid off. He did some work on "The Little Mermaid" story, but it was almost 50 years before this reached the cinema. His final years were spent in poverty. His last works were for local schools (including 'The First Spring' mural installed at Central Junior High School, Los Angeles) and churches (including his painting to the Wong Chapel at the First Congregational Church, Los Angeles - illustrating the 23rd Psalm).

His reputation has grown steadily since then.

Notable works

  • In Powder and Crinoline: Old Fairy Tales (1913) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914) by Peter Christen and Moe Asbjornsen
  • Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen (1924) by Hans Andersen
  • Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1925) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • Red Magic: a Collection of the World's Best Fairy Tales from All Countries (1930) by Romer Wilson (ed)

External links and resources


  1. ^ online version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon


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