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Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1886, Kay Rasmus Nielsen described being raised in a “tense atmosphere of art.”

The son of actors Martinius and Oda Nielsen, the artist was deeply immersed in the performing arts from a young age, a formative experience that was to influence the course of his career.  With an aptitude for drawing and a passion for literature, Nielsen’s short-lived notion to pursue medicine was abandoned in favor of studying painting in Paris from 1906 to 1911. Nielsen’s formal art training began with French artist Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) at the Académie Julian, followed by study at the Académie Colarossi under Norwegian painter and illustrator Christian Krohg (1862-1925) and French painter Lucien Simon (1861-1925), among others. In 1907 Nielsen interrupted his studies to travel to New York to accompany his mother, a celebrated actress and singer, on an extended performance tour of the United States sponsored by the Danish-American Society.

While a student of painting, Nielsen also devoted himself to illustration, creating stark black-and-white compositions in pen and ink, related to contemporary literature or inspired by personal experience. This dramatic body of work elicited an invitation in 1910 to exhibit his work at Dowdeswell & Dowdeswells Ltd. Nielsen moved to London where his first exhibition in 1912 included the notable but unpublished series The Book of Death, a sequence of ten illustrations meditating on Pierrot devastated by the death of his beloved. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Nielsen often focused on the melancholic or macabre elements of tales, and created visual sequences with themes of love, sexuality, loss and death.       

Surprised by the intensity of emotion in Nielsen’s illustrations, contemporary reviewers often linked his work to that of Aubrey Beardsley or Carlos Schwabe. Today, Nielsen’s deep appreciation of illustrators active around 1890 to 1910 is evident—Carl Otto Czeschka and Edmund Sullivan come to mind—but the “originality” of his work and his “rare visionary power and imagination” was consistently noted from the start. The success of Nielsen’s first exhibition led to several gift book illustration commissions, and accompanying selling exhibitions, beginning with In Powder and Crinoline, a compilation of French fairytales, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1913. Nielsen’s Rococo-inspired vision resulted in both pastel fancies, as well as brooding, jewel-toned settings for some of the darker tales. A master of fairytale illustration described as “the only living artist who can draw a troll,” Nielsen’s work only occasionally included fairies, as he typically focused on creating dramatic settings for the stories’ protagonists. The following year brought Nielsen’s tour-de-force illustrations for a new compilation of Norse tales poetically titled East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Tales from the Old North. Nielsen’s broad cultural and historic interests, as well as his “sense of the supernatural,” are reflected in the range of his highly detailed and densely patterned illustrations, revealing his love of Norse mythology as well as his deep knowledge of the artistic traditions of China, Japan and Persia. The success of these book projects also led to work with periodicals such as the Illustrated London News where his Joan of Arc series of 1914 was included in the special Christmas edition of 1920.   

Nielsen received greater international attention in 1917 with an exhibition at Scott & Fowles in New York, sponsored by Martin Birnbaum who noted the “genuine pleasure to reach the oasis of a Kay Nielsen picture in a journey through the printed pages of a book.” A portrait photograph of Nielsen in the accompanying exhibition catalogue shows the artist at his desk crowded with pens and pencils, brushes and paint pots. Somewhat staged, the image never nevertheless conveys the complexity of Nielsen’s artistic practice. Technical examination of some of Nielsen’s watercolors suggests a significant effort to plan the illustrations in advance, as the clarity of the initial outline in graphite is striking in confidence. Once the outline was completed, a dense color scape was created through highly controlled use of watercolor. Finally, the drawings were finished in ink, accenting the original outlines.  In an example from his Great War series, the paper is scratched extensively to create highlights, further accenting the composition. It seems likely that Nielsen employed masking as a technique to ensure crisp definition. Overall, the works appear tightly controlled, yet in places there is a surprising looseness to his handling of color, and freedom to the decoration. Less well remembered today, Nielsen also worked extensively in pen and ink, creating countless monochrome line illustrations and margin decorations for all of his projects, published or not.

The global socio-economic impact of the First World War inevitably affected the luxury book trade, reducing the market for illustration. Nielsen left London and returned to the performing arts, designing costumes and stage sets for the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, including productions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Danish playwright Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin, the latter possibly connected to Nielsen’s large project of illustrations for a Danish translation of A Thousand and One Nights which remained unpublished in his lifetime. Nielsen’s life-long immersion in theater reflected in his illustrations, many of which could readily be translated to the stage. Particularly successful at creating a freeze frame of a moment of high drama, Nielsen’s compositions have a surprising sense of depth. His preference for a low viewpoint with expansive sky or woods, also contributes to the impression of a stage set.

Residing in Denmark, Nielsen continued to work on illustration commissions for English publishers. In 1924, Nielsen’s illustrations—admired for their watery blue palette, and their delicate floral borders inspired by Persian or Indian miniatures—appeared in a new edition of Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen, some of which he had been working on since his student days in Paris. This was followed by Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm in 1925, notable for its bold imagery. Five years later, Red Magic: A Collection of the World’s Best Fairy Tales from All Countries, edited by Romer Wilson, appeared. With his multi-cultural approach to illustration, Nielsen was suited to this type of anthology of global storytelling. However, due to the relatively poor quality of the publication and its small format, Nielsen’s creative efforts and stylistic range were not represented to best advantage in reproduction, as evidenced by the strength of the original illustrations that match his earlier work in technique and creative range.

In 1936 Nielsen went to California to collaborate with his actor friend and colleague Johannes Poulsen (1881-1938) on the stage sets and costumes for a large-scale theatrical production of Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl. With some tentative prospects for new professional opportunities in both theater and illustration, Nielsen remained in the United States with his wife Ulla, and found employment for a few years with Disney’s animation studio. Nielsen left an enduring visual legacy with the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria segments of the 1940 animation film Fantasia. Although not produced in his lifetime, Nielsen’s conceptual contributions to Disney’s The Little Mermaid were credited at its release in 1989. 

An internationally celebrated artist in his youth, Nielsen found minimal commercial success in the last decades of his life, eking out an existence with Ulla, between Denmark and California, with the support of a small group of devoted friends. In the years prior to his death in 1957, although plagued by poor health, Nielsen completed a handful of public painting commissions, including the school mural The First Spring, a monumental reflection of his artistic abilities as both stage designer and illustrator. 

Meghan Melvin
Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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