(Art) East of the Sun and West of the Moon

kay nielsen two-page illustration from The Arabian Nights

It’s hard to imagine that anyone hasn’t yet heard of Kay Nielsen, legendary Danish artist and illustrator, but anything is possible. He certainly remained largely unsung in his time. Despite a brief stint at Disney, where he created the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia, as well as concept art for a number of adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales (including The Little Mermaid, which wasn’t used until 1989), he was let go after four years and spent the remainder of his life in relative poverty. He died in 1957.

Before his wife joined him a year later, she gave his book of illustrations, which included unpublished work on The Arabian Nights, to American architect Frederick Monhoff, who tried to get them placed in museums. None would take them. This year, Nielsen is the subject of a large retrospective (through January 2020) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and he is widely recognized as a master illustrator of the “golden age of illustration” (lasting from the advent of Daniel Vierge’s printing technique in the 1880s to the point that drawings and paintings could be reproduced with relative ease, from the 1930s on).

His first English commission was 24 color plates and more than 15 monotone illustrations for In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as The Twelve Dancing Princesses in the US) in 1913. In the same year, Nielsen was also commissioned by The Illustrated London News to produce a set of four illustrations to accompany the tales of Charles Perrault; Nielsen’s illustrations for ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Bluebeard’ were published in the 1913 Christmas Edition.

A year later in 1914, Nielsen provided 25 color plates and more than 21 monotone images for his most famous work, the children’s collection East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The color images for both In Powder and Crinoline and East of the Sun and West of the Moon were reproduced by a 4-color process, in contrast to many of the illustrations prepared by his contemporaries that characteristically utilized a traditional 3-color process, which no doubt contributes to their lasting beauty. (Adapted from Wikipedia)