Monday, 7 November 2011

The art of Kay Nielsen

The celebrated Danish artist Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen on the 12th March 1886. His father was the Director of the Royal Danish Theatre, and his mother, Oda Larssen, was a very popular actress and singer. Kay (christened Kai) was inspired to illustrate the traditional Norse sagas read aloud to him by his mother during his childhood.

Kay left home at the age of eighteen to study art in the schools of Montparnasse, Paris. From 1904 to 1911 he studied at Colarossi and the Academie Julian.  The Russian Ballet, which took Paris by storm while he was studying there, proved to be a huge inspiration which led to the distinctive and exotic costumes found on many figures in his later book illustrations.

Kay's most productive and successful period began in 1911 when he moved to London and held his first major exhibition at the Dowdeswell Galleries in New Bond Street (July 1912). The success of this exhibition led to Kay Nielsen’s first commission from Hodder & Stoughton - In Powder and Crinoline a collection of lesser known old fairy tales retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

By general consent, Kay Nielsen’s next book East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, was his most celebrated and spectacular success. The tales were translated from the Norwegian of two devoted collectors of Scandinavian folklore, Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe and published by Hodder & Stoughton in October 1914. 
In 1917 Kay returned to Copenhagen and was employed as the chief stage designer at the Danish State Theatre until 1923.  During this period he painted a series of illustrations for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and A Thousand and one Nights but the printing of this work in Denmark was abandoned due to the high costs after the war.

 He returned to London in 1924 when Hodder & Stoughton published his edition of Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales.  This was quickly followed by an edition of Hansel and Gretel and other stories by the Brothers Grimm.   The illustrations for Hansel and Gretel and his later book Red Magic were exhibited at the Leicester Square Gallery in London in late 1930.

In 1938 he and his wife moved to Los Angeles where Kay managed to obtain occasional work as a set designer. He spent four years working for Walt Disney 
where his work was used in the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences of Fantasia. In 1942 he was commissioned to paint a large mural called The First Spring and a later commission was for an alter painting based on the 23rd Psalm for the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, this was completed in 1947, after which there was no more work for six years.   Even in his native Denmark, to which he and his wife returned briefly, Nielsen’s art was no longer in demand. He remained in artistic obscurity until his death in June 1957 at the age of 71.  

His books, however, have enjoyed a happy ending. Embellished with gorgeous watercolours, ornate endpapers and decorative motifs, they are now highly sought after by art lovers and book collectors worldwide.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen now sold, thank you for your interest.

I like the ethereal quality of Kay Nielsen's art - but what do you think?


  1. Megan@Storybook Love Affair7 November 2011 at 11:03

    Beautiful artwork, I love all the pictures! Thanks for sharing and providing the info, interesting post!

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

  2. I am so glad he devoted his time to this. I love these Norwegian stories.

  3. barbaraannefisher7 November 2011 at 19:16

    Thank you Megan, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  4. barbaraannefisher7 November 2011 at 19:16

    Hi Donna, Me too. Thanks for calling in.

  5. Oh Barbara - you've chosen one of my favourite artists today. I just adore Kay Nielsen's art. It is just brilliant - innovative and decorative and so, so beautiful. You've taught me something new too - I never knew his work was included in Fantasia. Now it seems obvious but I never made the connection before.

  6. What a wonderful art history lesson! I enjoy Kay Nielsen's work. I learned so much from reading the post and feel I have a better sense of who he was an artist. Glad that his artwork in books is still in such demand- but I always feel bad for artists when there is more of a demand for their work once they are gone! ~Jess

  7. Hey, Thanks for visting my blog (
    I am really enjyong and loving your blog. very nice post on kay Nielsen;s work.

  8. Thank you for introducing us to Kay's works, Barbara! I love the watercolour paintings, especially the second (The Steadfast Tin Soldier) and last (can't place it, yet) ones.

  9. barbaraannefisher8 November 2011 at 09:02

    Hello Sharon, Thanks for calling in. I only found out about the Fantasia connection while researching for this post – so I learnt something too. I love Kay Nielsen’s work and really enjoyed sharing some of it.

  10. barbaraannefisher8 November 2011 at 09:05

    I know what you mean Jess; it’s such a shame he will never know how popular his work is now. Still better that than forgotten altogether. Thanks for calling in and commenting.

  11. barbaraannefisher8 November 2011 at 09:09

    Hello Claudine, Should I tell you the name of the last one or leave you to work it out?? Oh I can't resist - it's the snow queen. I also like the steadfast tin soldier the best but the one of the princess and the pea also makes me smile.

  12. barbaraannefisher8 November 2011 at 12:27

    Thank you, I enjoy your blog too. Thanks for calling in and commenting.

  13. Ah! I did suspect the kids were Gerda and Kai. Thanks for the confirmation! And yes, the princess and the pea picture looks wonderful (like a delicious meringue right in the middle).

  14. Oh I ADORE Nielsen's art - I had a book of his as a child which I treasured for the beautiful, sweeping dresses in it! I didn't know he was partly responsible for the art in Night on Bald Mountain - I was terrified of it! But perhaps that's a testament to the power of his imagery.

  15. barbaraannefisher10 November 2011 at 20:16

    All I can say is … me too! Maybe we should start a Kay Nielsen appreciation society.


I really appreciate your comment. Thank you!
Barbara xx

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