Illustrations Art Gallery

Kay Nielsen – Illustrations for The Arabian Nights 1976

Kay Rasmus Nielsen (March 12, 1886 – June 21, 1957) was a Danish illustrator who was popular in the early 20th century, 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 story sketches and illustrations.

Kay Nielsen’s first illustrated book, In Powder and Crinoline was published in 1913. He went on to illustrate East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1914), Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1924), Hansel and Gretel (1924) and Red Magic (1930).

One Thousand and One Nights  a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English-language edition (c. 1706–1721), which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.

The work was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central and South Asia, and North Africa. Some tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Greek, Jewish and Turkish folklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk stories from the Abbasid and Mamluk eras, while others, especially the frame story, are most probably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hezār Afsān, which in turn relied partly on Indian elements.

What is common throughout all the editions of the Nights is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryār and his wife Scheherazade and the framing device incorporated throughout the tales themselves. The stories proceed from this original tale; some are framed within other tales, while others are self-contained. Some editions contain only a few hundred nights, while others include 1,001 or more. The bulk of the text is in prose, although verse is occasionally used for songs and riddles and to express heightened emotion.

Many illustrators have illustrated the Stories of Arabian Nights over the ages and are quite successfully at that: Edmund Dulac, E.J. Detmold, Rene Bull, Virginia Frances Sterrett … to name a just few illustrators from the Golden Age. Unfortunately, Kay Nielsen is not one among them. The illustrations he did for Arabian Nights project was not published during his life time and destined to be forgotten if it were not for David Larkin’s great work “The Unknown Painting of Kay Nielsen” book published in 1977


Published in 1977, Kay Nielsen’s forgotten watercolors appeared in print for the first time ever and what an amazing feast it was. Truly original, departed from the usual traditional characteristics and often repeated visuals of the past and created his own unique vision of the stories. Which, in my view, are the best original illustrations for the Stories of Arabian Nights.

Published in paperback format, the “cheap” edition. The quality of the reproduced illustrations are not quite on par with the Golden Age period. They are still good enough and that we all have to be thankful for. I hope in time, more people will get to know the works of this great artist and thanks to the Internet, Kay Nielsen’s illustrations will get the attention and a place among the greatest that he truly deserves.

Art Gallery: Kay Nielsen – The Arabian Nights 1976

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