Kay Nielsen

Kay Nielsen, Illustration from “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, 1914

Kay Rasmus Nielsen, born in 1886, was a Danish illustrator who was popular in the early 20th century, the “golden age of illustration” which lasted from when Daniel Vierge and other pioneers developed printing technology to the point that drawings and paintings could be reproduced with reasonable facility.

There was an appetite in the early twentieth century for luxurious collections of children’s stories, often bound in gold-toothed vellum, to be given as gifts. Brilliant artists of the day including Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac were commissioned to illustrate them. Perhaps one of the finest creations to emerge from this golden age of illustration was an edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon which boasted twenty-five colour plates and many more monochrome images by Kay Nielsen, a young Danish artist who had studied in Paris before moving to England in 1911.

The compendium consists of fifteen fairy tales gathered by the Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe on their journeys across mid nineteenth-century Norway. Translated into English by George Webbe Dasent, the stories — populated by witches, trolls, ogres, sly foxes, mysterious bears, beautiful princesses and shy country lads turned heroes — were praised by Jacob Grimm himself for having a freshness and a fullness that “surpasses nearly all others”.

The Great War interrupted Nielsen’s career and he never quite reached the same heights as an illustrator afterwards. But his work did embellish some further collections of stories, notably by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. In his fifties he moved to Hollywood to work for Walt Disney and some of his illustrations graced the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sequences of Fantasia (1940). Nielsen was let go by Disney in 1941 and spent the final sixteen years of his life in poverty.

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