The Art of …

… Illustration, by Danish artist Kay Neilsen

Kay Nielsen, Detail of “A Tale from a Garden, No. 1, He and She and That,” 1913. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Image from Wonderland


  1. Tethys says

    Wow, that is a stunning example of Nielsen’s art. I wonder if it was created as an illustration for a story, like much of their body of work.

    The ‘That’ of the title is very intriguing, but it’s smile is simply creepy.

  2. flex says

    A little digging suggests that this was part of a series of 4 works which were not an illustration for a story, but told a story through the illustrations. Much like a lot of the Edward Gorey illustrations.

    Interestingly enough, Nielson did illustrate a number of fairy-tale books. One book of fairy tales, In Powder and Cinoline, written by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was so popular that Nielson was engaged to illustrate a number of books of fairy tales, most of them traditional like Hans Christian Andersson and The Brothers Grimm. One off-shoot of the British Arts and Crafts movement was the revival of interest in illustrated fairy stories intended to be read by adults, even if the late Victorian sensibilities bowdlerized the original tales and the new ones (written by authors like Charles Lamb, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde) were usually quite devoid of sexual themes. I have a soft spot for these books myself because they led to both the fantasy and the science fiction genres. While there are examples of earlier forms of fantasy and SF, it was the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement which took fears of industrialization, and mixed in tales of the immoral scientist, tales of the occult, and tales of mystical ancient knowledge, to produce writers like Lord Dunsany, A. Merritt, and H.P. Lovecraft.

    The series, A Tale from a Garden, with the first illustration above, appears to be one of the more adult illustrations Nielsen made. And while the subject is suggestive, it isn’t overtly sexual, as much of Aubrey Beardsley’s work was. Although Nielson’s style does look to have been influenced by Beardsley. Apparently some illustrations for The Arabian Nights, which were not published during Nielson’s life, show some partial nudity but still nothing explicit.

    I didn’t know that Nielson was the art director for the Disney Fantasia sequence for Paul Dukas Night on Bald Mountain, but now that I know I can see the connection.

  3. Tethys says

    Thanks flex! I have only found one more of the four works in the A Tale from a Garden series, so I remain curious as to the tale.

    The book East of the Sun, and West of the Moon is another collection of fairy tales that he illustrated. It has been one of my favorite books since I first discovered it in my grade school library.

    I clicked through to the article linked in the OP, which has many other examples of Nielsen art that I’ve never seen before. (The drawing with highly stylized blue leaved trees at the top is amazing!) It mentions several other notable artists of the Art Noveau period, but it does not mention Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh. She was clearly a strong influence on Nielsen, and other later artists such as Klimt and Klee.

  4. flex says

    Unfortunately, my edition of East of the Sun, & West of the Moon from 1970 was illustrated by others. The illustrations are somewhat of a mix with a dozen different artists. None of them are bad but the style varies. I would hazard that Theodor Kittelsen took a lot of inspiration from Goya’s The Capriccios, while Alf Rolfsen takes some inspiration from Nielson but also was influenced by Miro. Then in the illustrations from Dagfin Werenskiold, there is a hint of Picasso.

    The credits for the illustrations suggest they all came from a 1936 3-volume edition of the original (untranslated) Norwegian work by Peter Christian Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe. Of course, it is not surprising that in a reprint of the original the editors would choose to use entirely Norwegian illustrators. Maybe I should look for a copy with Nielsen’s artwork? It looks like there is a nice 1977 hardcover reprint available on Abebooks for less than $20. Enticing.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    If there ever was a oblivious man (and there are, many), the dude in the top hat is one.

    It is stunning work indeed.

Leave a Reply