Kay Nielsen was a Danish illustrator and key figure of the golden age of illustration. His art evinces the influence of ukiyo-e heavy Utagawa Hiroshige as well as Art Nouveau master Aubrey Beardsley. However, his synthesis was his own– an instantly recognizable, highly ornate, fantastical world of pastels and light.
Nielsen was born 12 March 1886, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was the director of the Royal Danish Theatre. From 1904 till 1916, he studied art in Paris and London. His first professional work was providing the illustrations for In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, first published in 1913. He returned to Denmark in 1917 where he collaborated with Johannes Poulsen in painting stage scenery at the Royal Danish Theatre. After his theater work, he returned to illustrations, providing them for several collections of fairy tales.
In 1936, Nielsen was commissioned to provide stage art for a performance of Max Reinhardt’s Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1938, Poulsen died, and the following year, Nielsen and his wife, Ulla, moved to California, where he found employment at Walt Disney. There he served as art director for the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” segments of Fantasia.
Whilst at Disney, he also worked as a visual development artist for Little Mermaid. However, the pace and assembly line approach at Disney wore him out and he was let go in 1940. Disney intended to bring him back for a sequel to Fantasia but after the original was a box-office disappointment, plans for that film were scrapped. In 1956, his work was featured in an episode of Disneyland titled “The Plausible Impossible,” which dealt with animation techniques. The Little Mermaid was finally made into a film in 1989, although the look has little resemblance with Nielsen’s.
For the remainder of his life, he lived in poverty with most necessities provided by his friends. He occasionally painted murals around Los Angeles. His mural The First Spring originally hung at Central Junior High. After that school was demolished it was moved to John A. Sutter Middle School in Canoga Park. His illustration of the 23rd Psalm adorns the altar tablet at Wong Chapel. He died 21 January 1957. His wife died the year after.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you