Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886 – 1957) 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. 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 story sketches and illustrations.
Kay Nielsen studied art in Paris at Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi from 1904 to 1911, and then lived in England from 1911 to 1916. He received his first English commission from 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 in 1913. 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.
A year later in 1914, Nielsen provided 25 colour plates and more than 21 monotone images for the children's collection East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Also in that year, Nielsen produced at least three illustrations depicting scenes from the life of Joan of Arc. When published later in the 1920s, these images were associated with relevant text from The Monk of Fife.
In 1917 Nielsen 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.
Following his theatrical work in Copenhagen, Nielsen returned to contributing to illustrated books with the publication of Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen in 1924. 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 illustrations. A further 5 years passed before the publication of Red Magic, the final title to be illustrated comprehensively by Nielsen.
In 1939 Nielsen left for California and worked for Hollywood companies. There Nielsen secured a job with The Walt Disney Company, where his work was used in the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences of Fantasia. Nielsen was renowned at the Disney studio for his concept art and he contributed artwork for many Disney films. Nielsen worked for The Walt Disney Company for 4 years, from 1937 to 1941 before being let go.
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. Nielsen contracted a chronic cough that would plague him until his death on June 21, 1957 at the age of 71.