Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) is considered to be among the leading European artists associated with what has become known as the Golden Age of Illustration. His body of work extends to substantial suites of monotone and color artwork for five major publications, in addition to designs for the Danish theater, work with Disney and major mural installations in California.

Having been privately tutored from the age of 12, Nielsen had displayed an artistic interest from an early age, but while the Sagas read to him as a child provided ample subjects, he had no intention of becoming an illustrator – believing instead that he would train to be a medical practitioner. At the age of 17, however, a radical shift occurred in Nielsen’s life when he broke off his study and traveled to Paris – as his mother had done in her own youth – and he undertook formal training in Art.

For the following seven years, he participated in a number of Parisian art schools, including the “Academie Julien” – where he studied under Jean Paul Laurence; and “Collarossi” – where he studied under Kristian Krogg and Lucien Simon. As with his fellow students, his formal studies were focused on working from nature, but his informal artistic pursuits followed a different path and included depictions of scenes described in the works of Heine, Verlaine and Andersen, in addition to a suite dedicated to his own unpublished “Book of Death”.

In 1910, he was offered an exhibition in London with Dowdeswel and Dowdeswel and his first show was held in 1912. Nielsen capitalized on the success of his 1912 showing and persuaded Hodder & Stoughton to produce a book of modern illustrated fairy tales. That publishing house enlisted the talents of Arthur Quiller-Couch to translate and compile the text and in 1913, “In Powder and Crinoline” (Hodder & Stoughton: London; 1913) was published with 26 color images and more than 15 monotone illustrations. For that First Edition, Nielsen’s color illustrations were published with an expensive 4-color process to ensure accurate reproduction of his colorful and highly stylized designs.

In 1913, Nielsen also produced a series of illustrations depicting scenes from fairy tales by Charles Perrault for publication in “The Illustrated London News”, including: ‘Le Belle au Bois Dormant’ (‘The Sleeping Beauty’); ‘Le Chat Botte’ (‘Puss in Boots’); ‘Cendrillon’ (‘Cinderella’); and ‘La Barbe Bleue’ (‘Bluebeard’).

The following year, his suite of illustrations illustrating a translation of the “Norske Folkeeventyr” of Asbjornsen and Moe was published in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (Hodder & Stoughton: London; 1914). Once more, as with his illustrations for “In Powder and Crinoline”, his color images utilized a 4-color process to produce the 25 tipped-in color plates for “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” – with those color images accompanied by illustrated End Papers (applied with gold) and more than 22 monotone illustrations.

In 1914, Nielsen also produced a series of illustrations depicting scenes from the life of Joan of Arc that were subsequently published in “The Illustrated London News” accompanied by extracts from “The Monk of Fife” (a romance set in the days of St Joan).

During World War I, Nielsen returned to Denmark and produced designs for the theater, in addition to working on a phenomenal suite of color and monotone illustrations for a planned Danish translation of Scheherazade’s classic Persian tales, “Thousand Nights and a Night”. Due to commercial considerations in the years following World War I, Nielsen’s suite for Scheherazade’s stories was not published and his illustrations were only ‘discovered’ following his death.

Following his return to England in 1922, Nielsen received another commission from Hodder & Stoughton and the following year, the Leicester Galleries (London) held a Christmas Season Exhibition displaying his watercolors to that commission, “Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen” (Hodder & Stoughton: London; 1923). The published suite included 12 color images and more than 16 major monotone illustrations. His color designs were prepared with integrated formal and informal borders – each of the borders was unique and the informal borders were produced in a style reminiscent of ‘mille fleur’).

One further substantial illustrated book commission was received by Nielsen before his emigration to the United States – a project that resulted in a suite of 12 color images and more than 10 monotone designs published in “Hansel and Gretel and other stories by the Brothers Grimm” (Hodder & Stoughton: London; 1925).

In 1925, Nielsen moved to the United States, but found difficulties in sustaining a profitable artistic career. By 1930, his fortunes had forced him to undertake a further illustrated book commission for publication in England and subsequently, his suite of 8 color images and more than 50 monotone designs appeared in “Red Magic” (Jonathon Cape: London; 1930).

Following that work, Nielsen returned to the United States and once more, found varied success. He worked with Disney on a number of projects – most notably the ‘Bald Mountain/Ave Maria’ sequences in “Fantasia”, in addition to concept work on “The Ride of the Valkyries”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”. By the early 1940s, however, he had separated from Disney and from that time, his work seems to have been largely restricted to a number of commissions for major murals throughout California.

For further information on Kay Nielsen, the tales he depicted and to view over 320 of his illustrations, visit the Kay Nielsen Collection held by the ‘Spirit of the Ages’ Museum.

Source by Douglas Colston

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