Kay Nielsen was born on March 12, 1886 in Copenhagen, Denmark and is most famous for his illustrations in the book “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”. Both of his parents were actors, with his mother, Oda Nielsen, being one of the most celebrated actresses of her time.
Kay moved to Paris at Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi from 1904 to 1911, before moving to England from 1911 to 1916.
While in England, his first commission was to illustrate a collection of fairy tales by Hodder and Stoughton (one of the largest British publishing houses). In 1913 he received two large commissions: 24 color plates and over 15 monotone illustrations for two books about fairy tales.
In 1917, Kay left on a new adventure to New York for an exhibit of his work, and returned to Denmark. When he returned, he start to work on a large project, consisting of many illustrations that would accompany a full translation of The Arabian Nights into Danish , English, French and was expected to be a huge success. However, the project was never completed. This was the first project Kay had undertaken since his one year hiatus from art during World War I.
In 1939, Kay left again for America, this time hoping to find his luck in Hollywood. He worked in several projects for The Walt Disney Company including “Ave Maria”, “Night on Bald Mountain” and sequences of Fantasia. During the four years he worked there, Kay was one of the most well known artists at the Walt Disney Company, creating concept art for proposed films, such as The Little Mermaid, however that particular project was shelved and not created during his lifetime.
After being let go from the company, he returned to Denmark, hoping to find a better market for his work. He lived his final years in poverty, and died when he was 71. His wife died the following year and gave his remaining art to a close family friend, who tried to donate to museums in both Denmark and the USA. Both countries refused to include his art, and he was largely unknown until recent times.