August 9, 2014

Another Treasure From Great-Grandmother's Trove, By Cristina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

I’ve mentioned before that my great-grandmother collected some beautiful books. Undine, which I wrote about in an earlier post, is one of them. Another is an exquisite edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, illustrated by the great Kay Nielsen.

 Kay Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1886. His career blossomed early, but the tides of war and of a declining interest in the illustrative arts left a magnificent talent to end his days in poverty. He died in 1957. Posthumously, he was eventually recognized as one--if not the--greatest illustrator of the Golden Age of Illustration.

“The Golden Age of Illustration was a period of unprecedented excellence in book and magazine illustration. It developed from advances in technology permitting accurate and inexpensive reproduction of art, combined with a voracious public demand for new graphic art. In Europe, Golden Age artists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and by such design-oriented movements as the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Les Nabis” (ArtCyclopedia).

Nielsen’s work is often noted as being inspired by fellow illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and, more generally, the Art Nouveau movement. He was also inspired from a young age by the art of Japan (example, Katsushika Hokusai), especially wood-block prints, as can be seen in his asymmetrical compositions and elements flattened by the use of rich and intricate patterns.

The first volume that Nielsen illustrated to great acclaim was In Powder and Crinoline, published in America as The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a collection of tales retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1913).
From Powder and Crinoline, Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North was published the following year. Nielsen’s illustrations in this collection of fantastic and unusual stories are without a doubt his best work. (Admittedly, I’m biased, since I’ve seen them in person.) His creations have an oddness to them that catches the eye immediately, but the depth of beauty within this oddness keeps the eye’s attention. They are rich, they are compelling, they are . . . fairy-tale. Perfectly, wonderfully fairy tale.

"The Lassie and Her Grandmother," Kay Nielsen

Old Tales from the North was published by Hodder & Stoughton (1914). The first edition deluxe copies (of which 500 were made) are signed by Nielsen. They are bound in vellum with gilt lettering and decoration. The first edition trade copies are bound in blue cloth and likewise decorated in gilt. The tales within the anthology were mainly culled from George Webbe Dasent’s “Popular Tales from the Norse” (translated from Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe’sNorske Folkeeventyr in 1859) though one tale, “Prince Lindworm,” was actually translated specifically for this anthology. You can read the full text of the book online here.

Nielsen’s publishing career was stymied for the next 10 years by World War I and also by his interests in theater production, though he worked during this period on illustrations for a volume of stories from Arabian Nights, which was never completed. 1924 and 1925 saw the back-to-back publications of his work in anthologies of tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers. The final book to feature his illustrations was the little-known Red Magic, published in 1930.  

Red Magic,  Kay Nielsen

Nielsen and his wife moved to California in 1936, where he spent the remainder of his life. His final illustrative work was done as an employee of Walt Disney Studios. We can see his creations in Fantasia (1940), including the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” scenes. He also did early creative work for a proposed film based on Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”--a project which, as we know, would not see completion for another 50 years. The Little Mermaid film still credited Nielsen for “visual development.” 

The Little Mermaid, Kay Nielsen

Which of Nielsen’s illustrations is your favorite? Join Enchanted Conversation and let us know!

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.

Link to illustrations
Link to full text


Lissa Sloan said...

Beautiful images--I'm jealous again!!

Brita Long said...

These are so beautiful!

Sue said...

This post was beautifully written and very informative--I really enjoyed it. I like the examples of Nielsen's artwork you selected to feature. I agree that there is a genuine fairy tale quality to them. The subtle coloration he used, and the elongated lines of his figures give his artwork a magical sense. This is particularly evident in "The Lassie and Her Grandmother." Lovely!

Unknown said...

YES, I love Kay Nielsen to DEATH! Great work! :)

Unknown said...

I'm hoping Cristina, you may be able to help with a query as you seem well informed on Nielsen's works. The front cover image on East of the Sun and West of the Moon is something my aunt and uncle used to have in the early 70s as a huge print (it may even have been on cloth) with (I think) some gold leafing on it - it was stunning! I'm trying my hardest to find the name of said illustration to try and obtain a print but search after search is bringing up nothing. It's such a beautifully romantic image and I'd just love to know what it's called.