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.
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