Kay (pronounced Kigh) Nielsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1886, of an illustrious theater family. His father was Professor Martinius Nielsen, an actor, later to become the managing director of the Dagmartheater in Copenhagen, and his mother was Oda Larssen, a celebrated actress. Because of his parent's professional lives, he grew up surrounded by people of the Scandinavian theater, including such celebrities as Ibsen, Grieg and Bjornsen (Conmire 1979).
Nielsen's artistic talent developed during his childhood, when he heard the sagas of the northern countries. While being read to he would draw what was in his imagination. He also committed to paper other life situations, but it was not his intention to become an artist. When he was twelve he was taken out of regular school and tutored at home during which time he considered a career in medicine. At age eighteen, Kay left home to study in Paris, where he lived in Montparnasse and studied art at the "Acadamie Julien under Jean Paul Laurence; thereafter Collarossi under Kristian Krag and several others; the last Lucien Simon" (Nielsen 1945). Much of his work at the art institute during this period was from nature, but he still preferred to draw images from his imagination and from the reading he did.
There were three outside influences on Nielsen's work. The first was oriental art which he grew up with because his grandfather had brought paintings and sculpture back from China. Susan Meyer says, in her A Treasury Of The Great Children's Book Illustrators, "Japanese woodcuts led to much of his own work: asymmetrical composition, large vacant areas, sinuous line work, and a flattened perspective" (Meyer 1983).
The second influence was the style of Aubrey Beardsley. Many of Beardsley's characteristics are in Nielsen's work, especially his "floral style . . . .which particularly influenced book illustration" (Hutter 1965), and his elongated figures.
The third influence was the Art Nouveau movement which began shortly before Nielsen's birth and continued into the early part of the Twentieth Century. Because this art form draws on the oriental style and is characterized by long smooth curving lines and open spaces, Nielsen can be said to have either been influenced by it or a contributor to it.
Beginning in 1912, several exhibitions of Nielsen's work were held in London. His first exhibit was at Dowdswel Galleries which was a showing of his Book of Death, a collection of black and white drawings. This work, never published, was heavily influenced by Aubrey Beardsley in style and subject. The tale is of a young clown, Pierrot, who is separated from his love by her death and his ultimate recovery of her in spirit. Keith Nicholson believes these drawings are in private collections or lost (Larkin 1975).
This was also the era of deluxe gift editions of books and Nielsen, as well as Arthur Rackham and Edward Dulac were to raise "illustrated books for children to new heights of sophistication"(Children's Literature Review 1989). Nielsen's second exhibit was in 1913 at the Leicester Galleries in London. Exhibitions were generally scheduled to coincide with the release of a new book and this exhibition featured the water colors from In Powder and Crinoline which was his first gift edition book. Keith Nicholson says that this work was inspired more by Chinese colorists than by Beardsley and that some of this series was "Nielsen at his most menacing and grotesque" (Larkin 1975). Some of the illustrations, however, were also very light with an ephemeral quality. Welleran Poltarnees in his Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, points out that Nielsen's art world is different from our own.
"Nielsen thinks as a stage designer, arranges his world as for an audience through a proscenium arch. His deliberate artificiality is in part the oddness proper to a fairy realm, in part the inevitable result of his temper reacting to the materials, but also, I think, it mimics his love of the stage which later flowered into the designing he did for Copenhagen's Royal Theater"(Poltarnees 1976).
About this picture, "I have had such a terrible dream, she declared, . . . . a pretty bird swooped down, snatched it from my hands and flew away with it," Poltarnees goes on to say that the bird pictured here is "....a bird designed to fill and balance the space rather than to fly. .....It is one of Nielsen's traits to skate too near to unlikelihood; to set us adrift in boats which will not float, or bend a knee as knees cannot be bent, or make us birds that should not fly " (Poltarnees 1976). In Powder and Crinoline was later published in America as Twelve Dancing Princesses.
This same gallery showed the water colors for East of the Sun and West of the Moon a year after it was published, in 1915. General opinion is that this set of drawings is Nielsen at his best (Larkin 1975). Here, he illustrates the folk legends of his own Scandinavia and, perhaps, his early experience with these stories, and his habit of depicting on paper what he heard or read, combined to make these illustrations so outstanding. Polar bears and snowy landscapes were popular themes in his home land and consequently, in the illustrations of these tales. It is about these water colors that Nicholson says there is a "flavor of Art Nouveau" (Larkin 1975).
Martin Birnbaum reviews it thus:
"Where a native Scandinavian accent is coupled with his naivete and quaint humor, as in the drawings from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Nielsen is inimitable. His most intricate inventiveness never seemed labored. Controlled in a measure by Norse ornamental traditions, he reaches an absolute equality with the poetical text, and it is a genuine pleasure to reach the oasis of a Kay Nielsen picture in a journey through the printed pages of the book." (Birnbaum 1919).
In 1917, Nielsen exhibited his work in New York, about which little is written. Over the next seven years he expressed his talent in a slightly different genre. When World War I ended, he returned to Copenhagen where he and a good friend, Johannes Poulsen, a young actor and producer, mounted productions for the Danish stage. Nielsen designed the set and the costumes for Aladdin in a poetic version for the Danish State Theater (Larkin 1975). This production required viewing over two nights. Three years later they collaborated on a production of Scaramouche, and Nielsen also produced drawings for the score of the music which was written by Sibelius. Other stage work during this period included The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dream.
Nineteen twenty-four brought another exhibit at the Leicester Galleries for his work on Hans Anderson's Fairy Tales. In 1925, he completed 12 color plates for Hansel and Gretel: Stories from the Brothers Grimm. He was to have only one more exhibition at Leicester Square in 1930 with the drawings for Red Magic, his final illustrated book.
Kay Nielsen married Ulla Pless-Schmidt in 1926. Ulla was the daughter of a wealthy physician and she and Kay led a life of ease and popularity in Denmark. The couple is portrayed as Kay being the quiet one as opposed to Ulla's vivaciousness. They lived in Europe until Kay left for Los Angeles in 1936, when he began a production of Everyman, with Poulsen at the Hollywood Bowl. Unfortunately, Poulsen died in 1938, ending the stage production part of Nielsen's career. Nielsen also worked with Walt Disney on Fantasia during this period. In Fantasia his influence is apparent in "The Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria" segments. The mountain itself has a very Nielsenish macabre quality. The trees, in this segment and in the subsequent Ave Maria segment are most definitely his style. They are tall and thin with spaces in between, very much like those he made for East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
When World War II began, Kay Nielsen sent for his wife, Ulla, who came to live with him in Los Angeles, leaving behind many of their personal belongings as well as a way of life which they would not be able to duplicate here. They bought a small house in the foothills of Southern California and soon became friends with many well known people. Holling C. Holling, the writer and illustrator of children's books was a neighbor. The writer, Janet Flanner was a frequent guest. It was her sister, Hildegard Flanner Monhoff, who wrote the elegy of Kay Nielsen in The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen, who lived around the corner from the couple. Other friends were Zoe Akins, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and Victor Borge, Danish pianist and entertainer. Financially, the times were not good for the Nielsens, and their standard of living was much lower than it had been in Europe. Because of their financial plight they, at times, became dependant upon their friends for some of life's necessities. One friend gave them a used Austin automobile, just big enough for the couple and their two Scottie dogs. For a short period, they tried to make money by raising chickens. This was a great change from their life in Denmark where they had had a houseboy to oversee their needs and tidy up after them. Their reputation in Denmark had been such that they could even borrow plants from the botanical garden for their parties.
After the Second World War, Nielsen never regained his former popularity in the United States or Denmark because of a shift in taste from fantasy to "realism and naturalism" (Children's Literature Review 1989). This pendulum only swung back in the early 1970's when there was a resurgence in interest in the Golden Age Illustrators among collectors. It was also the time of a new interest in fantasy, which had been stimulated by the work of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R.Tolkien, and Ursula Le Guin. This prompted a brief period of rediscovery of Nielsen's art which is exhibited in the editorial work of David Larkin. Unfortunately, the interest seems to have ended there.
The final stage of Kay Nielsen's career took a different turn, when a young librarian, Jasmine Britton, used her influence as a board member of a philanthropic foundation to acquire a commission for him to paint a mural at the Central Junior High School in Los Angeles. The title of this mural was The First Spring and depicted the lines from Genesis, "And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth on the earth after his kind, and God saw that it was good" (Larkin 1977). The mural was first presented to the community in an evening for the educational and social elite. The school orchestra and glee club performed Hyden's oratorio, "The Creation". Los Angles art critic, Arthur Millier, was present. He called the mural one of the most beautiful wall paintings in America.
The money received from this work kept the Nielsen's afloat for two years. Unfortunately, a year after Nielsen's painting was completed, the Los Angeles School Board decided to use this building as an administrative building and took down the mural. Again Jasmine Britton came to the forefront and threatened to announce to the public what the Los Angeles School Board had done to this piece of art which had been reviewed so positively. The School Board decided to rehang it at another location and a shocked Nielsen had to spend another two years restoring it because it had been removed so carelessly (Larkin 1977).
Kay Nielsen was next commissioned to do another mural for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School. Titled The Canticle of the Sun, the mural depicted a bigger than life character striding across the sky with a pastoral landscape below. This mural is still at its original location. The last Los Angeles mural was for the Wong Chapel of the First Congregationalist Church. This was a painting of the Twenty Third Psalm depicting a shepherd climbing a jagged rock with a lamb in his arms.
During his mural painting sessions, Nielsen talked with the children who attended the schools he was working in and included them in his work. He inserted creatures which the children wanted into The First Spring. When doing The Canticle of the Sun, he included the pet cat of a child who had spent much time watching him and wanted his cat painted into the picture. Nielsen agreed to this and adhered to his decision, even when the child brought the cat to school and it was not the type of cat that Nielsen had expected.
Currently the Mural Conservancy of Los Angles is dedicated to restoring and making known to the public, many of the murals which have been painted there. Although this is a work in progress by the conservancy, Kay Nielsen's The First Spring and The Canticle of the Sun are on the list of murals to be shown to the public (MCLA 1997) .
Nielsen's final mural was for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. This picture, The Whitman Legend, was commissioned by Jasmine Britton's sister, Helen Britton Holland when she heard of the financial straits that the Nielsen's were in during a return trip to Denmark. Ulla had written during this time that they were trying to keep their heads out of the "cold grey porridge" (Larkin 1977). Fifteen hundred dollars was sent to them as an advance and another fifteen hundred paid when the Nielsens arrived back in Los Angles. The mural was painted in Los Angles and then driven to Walla Walla, Washington where it was given as a gift to the college that Helen Holland had attended. In painting this mural, Nielson departed from his usual practice of painting from fantasy and chose to depict a scene from the real lives of two of the Whitmans who were massacred by American natives. Hildegard Flanner describes it this way:
"Beneath coral-like branches and heavy foliage a semi-circle of mourners stand about a dead body. Behind them rises the cone of a tepee. The scene gives way to an immense buttress of light, as in the other murals, holding in its transparency a pale stockade and a fenced grave, and at the bottom a felicity of flowers and grasses"(Larkin 1977).
This mural is smaller than the other three, being nine feet by fifteen feet, and currently hangs outside the office of the president of Whitman College (Kelsey 1997).
Kay Nielsen's health was poor for many years. He had a chronic cough which he struggled with during his years of painting murals. When he died in June of 1957, at age 71, the Los Angeles Times took little note (Larkin 1977). Nielsen's funeral service took place in the Wong Chapel beneath his mural. Ulla died a year later of severe diabetes, but only after giving an unpublished set of paintings to Hildegard Flanner, which Kay had intended to be used for a new translation of the Arabian Nights which never materialized. This set of paintings was given to their friend because no museum or gallery would take them as a gift, even in their native Denmark (Larkin 1977). These works appear in The Unknown Paintings Of Kay Nielsen.
Although Kay Nielsen died in obscurity, some of his work commands a high price in today's art world. A first edition, signed by the artist, of East Of The Sun and West Of The Moon is currently on the market for $4500. One of his Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales is $800. (Reisler 1997). Items held by the University of Pittsburgh are followed by the item's location and call number.
Britton, Jasmine. "Kay Nielsen - Danish Artist." The Horn Book Magazine. 21 (May 1945): 168-173.
Disney, Walt. Fantasia. 120 min. The Walt Disney Company. Videocassette.
Hutter, Heribert. Art Nouveau. Trans. by J. R. Foster. New York: Crown, 1965.
Kelsey, Sigrid, reference librarian, Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, http://www.whitman.edu/frames/penrose-frm.html, March 10, 1997.
Larkin, David, ed. Kay Nielsen. With an introduction by Keith Nicholson. Toronto: Peacock Press, 1975.
Larkin, David, ed. The Unknown Paintings Of Kay Nielsen. With an elegy by Hildegard Flanner. Toronto: Peacock Press, 1977.
Meyer, Susan. A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1983.
Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. http://artsceneal.com/MCLA.html March 9, 1997.
Nielsen, Kay. "Kay Nielsen's Own Story." The Horn Book Magazine. (May 1945): 173-175.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Authur. In Powder And Crinoline. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.
Reisler, JoAnn. http://www.clark.net/pub/reisler/ March 8, 1997.
Something About the Author. Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale Research. (1979): p. 210-218.
Birnbaum, Martin. Introductions; Painters, Sculptors and Graphic Artists. New York: F. F. Sherman, 1919.
Britton, Jasmine. "Kay Nielsen - Danish Artist." The Horn Book Magazine. (May 1945): 168-173
Commire, Ann. Something About The Author. Detroit : Gale Research Book Tower, 1979.
"Kay (Rasmus) Nielsen." Children's Literature Review. v. 16. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
Larkin, David, ed. Kay Nielsen. With an introduction by Keith Nicholson. Toronto: Peacock Press, 1975.
Larkin, David, ed. The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen. With an elegy by Hildegard Flanner. Toronto: Peacock Press, 1977.
Meyer, Susan. A Treasury Of The Great Children's Book Illustrators. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983.
Nielson, Kay. Canticle Of The Sun. Los Angeles, CA: Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School, 1946.
Nielsen, Kay. "Kay Nielsen's Own Story." The Horn Book Magazine. (May 1945): 173-175.
Nielsen, Kay. Kay Nielsen. London: Coronet, 1975.
Poltarnees, Welleran. Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation. La Jolla, CA: Green Tiger Press, 1976.
NOTE: This bibliography does not include reprints, translations, compilations, serial illustrations, non-book items for home decoration such as wallpaper and tiles, or the picture books -- mostly unpublished. In addition, books to which Nielsen contributed but did not illustrate entirely are not included.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. Doran, 1924.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
[Illustrations are reproduced from a copy of the 1924 edition in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]
Asbjornson, Peter Christian. East of the Sun and West of the Moon : Old Tales from the North. New York: Doran, n.d.
Brothers Grimm. Hansel and Gretel: Stories from the Brothers Grimm. 12 colored plates by Kay Nielsen. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.
Grimm, Jacob. Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories. London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.
Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. 12 mounted plates by Kay Nielsen. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1924.
Old Tales from the North. Seattle Books, 1975.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. In Powder and Crinoline. 24 colored plates by Kay Nielsen including an oval frontpiece. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. In Powder and Crinoline. Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.
This volume reflects neither the date nor the place of publication. It features twenty-four tipped-in color illustrations and assorted black and white line drawings. Each page is headed by a Nielsen border illustration of wreaths and garlands of vines surrounding the name of the story. The cover is blue and decorated with multi-colored swirls. The spine is also blue and inlaid with gold filigree and lettering.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales. Doran, 1923.
Wilson, Romer, ed. Red Magic. 8 colored plates and 50 black and white texual illustrations by Kay Nielsen. London: Jonathan Cape, 1930.
This resource guide represents the combined work of the following people: Sally Michalski, Michelle Frisque, Beth Kean, and Elizabeth T. Mahoney.
Format update by David Frank and Laurren Kresge, July 2009.
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