When I was cleaning off my parents’ bookshelves, I came across a book, Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, by Welleran Poltarnees. It was stashed between two larger art books. It must have been my mother’s, although I don’t remember her buying it. It was in a clear plastic bag with her name on it. Was my mother a fan of Nielsen’s work? She must have been. Like mother, like daughter.
I’ve been enamored of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations since I discovered them in my teens at my local bookshop. It was Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin (I bought it then and still have it). This was in the 70s, when illustrations of his were being re-popularized along with others of the “Golden Age of Illustration” such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.
Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation was issued by The Green Tiger Press in 1976. It is bound in hand-marbled paper. The interior is printed on heavy stock, with full color images tipped in. Along with both full and single color illustrations, there is commentary on the illustrations by Poltarnees, an autobiographical statement from 1939 and a 1945 interview by Jasmine Britton, the supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system at that time.
It is clearly a labor of love. I understand why my mother kept it sealed in a plastic cover.
Although I loved Nielsen’s work, I never bothered to learn more about who he was. In fact, for many years I assumed Kay was a woman. Of course, now such research is simple to do if you have a computer and a blogpost to write.
Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. He attended art schools in Paris, then moved to London in 1911. He became celebrated and successful for his wondrous, dramatic paintings in books such as Powder and Crinoline and Hansel and Gretel.
My favorite book of his is East of the Sun West of the Moon,
particularly the image below, which resonated with my angsty teenage soul.
It surprised me to learn now that the illustrations I so admired were all produced between 1912 and 1925. He published one book in 1930. He moved twice to the United States, first in 1936, and again in the 50s after returning to Denmark. He worked for Disney for a few years, contributing to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences in “Fantasia”, where his influence is clear.
But his style fell out of favor after the second world war and there were long dry spells where he and his wife had to rely on assistance from friends.
Jasmine Britton arranged to have Nielsen paint a mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School in 1941.
He painted another for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. His final work was a mural for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
He died in poverty and obscurity in 1957 at the age of 71. Services were held at the Wong Chapel. His wife died little over a year later.
Tastes change. Thank heavens that tastes change back again, and that the work of artists who were once considered out of fashion can be brought back for new viewers to appreciate. I found several sites with information about Kay Nielsen. If you want to learn more and see more wondrous images, I recommend this piece by Terry Windling.