Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886 – 1957) was a Danish illustrator who was popular in the early 20th century, during the “golden age of illustration.” He joined the ranks of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in enjoying the success of the Gift Books of the early 20th century. Nielsen is also known for his collaborations with Disney for whom he contributed many sketches and illustrations.
Kay (pronounced Kigh) Rasmus Nielsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1886 into an artistic family; both of his parents were actors. Nielsen’s father, Martinus Nielsen, was the director of Dagmarteater and his mother, Oda Nielsen, was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time, both at the Royal Danish Theatre and at the Dagmarteater. Kay Nielsen studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi from 1904 to 1911, and then lived in England from 1911 to 1916.
In 1913 he received his first English commission for publisher Hodder and Stoughton to illustrate a collection of fairy tales, providing 24 colour plates and more than 15 monotone illustrations for “In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.”
|From "In Powder and Crinoline"|
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.
|From "The Illustrated London News"|
The following year saw the publication of another children’s collection, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” for which Nielsen provided 25 colour plates and more than 21 monotone images. The colour images for both “Powder and Crinoline” and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” were reproduced by a new 4-colour process, in contrast to many illustrations by his contemporaries that characteristically utilised a traditional 3-colour process.
|From "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"|
While painting landscapes in the Dover area, Nielsen came in contact with The Society of Tempera Painters, where he learned new skills and was able to reduce the time involved in the painting process. In 1917 he left for New York where an exhibition of his work was held and subsequently returned to Denmark. Together with a collaborator, Johannes Poulsen, he painted stage scenery for the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. During this time Nielsen also worked on an extensive suite of illustrations intended to accompany a translation of Scheherazade’s “Arabian Nights” that had been undertaken by the Arabic scholar, Professor Arthur Christensen. According to Nielsen’s own published comments, these illustrations were to be the basis of his return to book illustration following a hiatus during World War I, and the intention had been to publish the Danish version in parallel with versions for the English-speaking world and the French market. The project never came to fruition and Nielsen’s illustrations remained unknown until many years after his death.
|From "Arabian Nights"|
Following his theatrical work in Copenhagen, Nielsen returned to contributing to illustrated books with the publication of “Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen” in 1924. This included 12 colour plates and more than 40 monotone illustrations. The colour images were prepared with integral formal and informal borders; the informal borders were produced in a mille-fleur style.
|From "Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen|
A year later Nielsen provided the artwork for “Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm” which was first published with 12 colour images and over 20 detailed monotone drawings.
|From "Hansel and Gretel"|
A further five years passed before the publication of “Red Magic,” the final title to be illustrated comprehensively by Nielsen. The 1930 version of “Red Magic” included 8 colour illustrations and more than 50 monotone ones.
|From "Red Magic"|
In 1939 Nielsen left for California and worked for Hollywood companies. A personal recommendation from Joe Grant to Walt Disney secured Nielsen a job with The Walt Disney Company, where his work was used on “Fantasia” in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences.
|Sketch for "Fantasia"|
Nielsen was renowned at he Disney studio for his concept art and he contributed artwork for many Disney films, including concept paintings for a proposed adaptation of fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” The film however was not made within Nielsen’s lifetime and his work went unused. The film finally went into production in 1989.
|Sketch for "The Little Mermaid"|
Nielsen briefly returned to Denmark in desperation. However, he found his works no longer in demand there either. His final years were spent in poverty. His last works fro schools and churches, including “The First Spring” mural installed at Central Junior High School, Los Angeles, and a painting illustrating the 23rd Psalm at the Wong Chapel, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles.
He died in 1957 aged 71 and his funeral service was held at the Wong Chapel. His wife Ulla died the following year.