Reading Room Log: Danish Illustrator Kay Nielsen

Illustration by Kay Nielsen from the story "The Lassie and Her Godmother" from the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen from the story “The Lassie and Her Godmother” from the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon, PT8802. N813 1914 General.

Kay Nielsen (pronounced Kye), was a Danish illustrator and artist, who was born in Copenhagen on March 12, 1886. The images in this post are taken from the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales From the North.  This volume is considered Nielsen’s masterpiece. Kay Nielsen was a talented illustrator who is often compared to Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac for his beautifully illustrated fairy tale collections including works such as In Powder and Crinoline: Fairy Tales Retold, a collection of tales by Hans Christian Anderson, and Hansel and Gretelby the Brothers Grimm. He also designed and painted sets for the Royal Danish Theater, and the theatricality of his style is evident in his fairy tale illustrations.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen from the story "The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain" from the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen from the story “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” from the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Nielsen moved to California in 1936 as interest in his work began to wane and World War II loomed on the horizon. He worked for Walt Disney from 1937-1941 where he collaborated on the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” segments of Fantasia.  Nielsen was also responsible for early concept art for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Once the war ended interest in Nielsen’s work disappeared. He and his wife spent the rest of their lives in the States where they consistently struggled with finances. Through the help of friends Nielsen was commissioned several times to paint public murals in venues ranging from a junior high school to the church where he was eventually buried. Kay Nielsen struggled as an artist until his death on June 21, 1957. Despite the financial struggles of his later years, Nielsen’s artwork is a beautiful tribute to the traditional tales he illustrated. The Burns Library is fortunate enough to own a first edition of Nielsen’s masterpiece, East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Please visit the Burns Library Reading Room and peruse this gorgeously illustrated volume of fairy tales in memory of a talented artist who informed children’s literature, theater, and animation.

  •  Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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