artist / participant

press release

An exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montréal, where it will be shown up from 8 March to 24 June 2007.

Walt Disney (1901-1966) is certainly one of the most original creators of the 20th century. Although he was not the inventor of animated film, he was the first to bring it to a universal audience. The outstanding success of his films ranks them among the models of American mass culture, to the extent that audiences forget their extraordinary beginnings.

Popular culture and highbrow culture typically ignore one another and the links between them have seldom been explored. Walt Disney’s feature-length animated films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, until The Jungle Book in 1967, are striking examples of reciprocal influence of these two cultures. Taking this approach, the exhibition brings together original drawings from the Disney studios and the works and creations of Western art which inspired them.

The Beginnings: “…and it all started with a mouse!” (Walt Disney)

1.1 Early Sources In 1928, Walt Disney made Steamboat Willie, history’s first short animated film with synchronised sound. It was the first appearance of one of the 20th century’s most famous characters: Mickey Mouse, invented by Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks (1901-1971). In 1935, The Band Concert featured Mickey in Technicolor for the first time. Disney Studios productions regularly won Oscar awards during the 1930s, but the event of the decade was the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The first full-length animated film, Snow White was a phenomenal international hit, marking the birth of a genre able to rival with Hollywood movies.

1.2 Walt Disney and the Pioneer Artists of the Disney Studios Walt Disney gave up drawing at an early stage; his talent lay in his infallible intuition, both in choosing and using his artists and finding literary or artistic sources for his films. He recruited some of the best European illustrators who had immigrated to America: the Swiss Albert Hurter (1883-1942), the Swedish artist Gustaf Tenggren (1886-1970) and his Danish counterpart Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). Trained in the art academies of their home countries, these pioneers instilled their culture in the studios’ early films, particularly Snow White (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940).

Literary and Cinematographic Sources

2.1 Literary Sources The great classics of European literature provided subjects for many Disney films, from Aesop’s Fables for the first short features to Kipling’s The Jungle Book for the 1967 film, Collodi for The Adventures of Pinocchio and Perrault’s fairytales for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. In 1935, Disney spent several weeks in Europe. He came to receive an honorary medal from the League of Nations and took back to California as many illustrated books as he could, to build up a stock of images meant to inspire the Studios’ productions. Much of this treasure trove of more than three hundred works is still kept in one of the departments of the Walt Disney Company near Los Angeles. Editions from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and Perrault, largely dominated the selection. Original editions of the works of the illustrator J.J. Granville figured prominently, along with drawings by Gustave Doré and German artists such as Ludwig Richter Moritz von Schwind and Heinrich Kley. The English were represented by editions of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Peter Pan and Wendy by James M. Barrie, illustrated by Arthur Rackham or John Tenniel.

2.2 Cinematographic Sources When he started in 1922, Disney had a rudimentary grasp of animation learnt from the works of Edwin G. Lutz (Animated Cartoons, 1920) and Eadweard Muybridge, the famous 19th-century photographer who had dissected human and animal locomotion. He was also familiar with the praxinoscopes of the Frenchman Emile Reynaud, the films of another Frenchman, Emile Cohl, who worked with the draughtsman Benjamin Rabier, and those of the American pioneer Winsor McCay, who made Little Nemo in 1909 followed by the peerless Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. The movies were an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Disney. In the 1930s, the latest films inspired his short features, sometimes quite literally, as in The Mad Doctor (1933) which gave a humorous twist to scenes from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) or Modern Inventions (1937) in which Donald’s misadventures were uncannily like Charlie Chaplin’s mishaps in Modern Times (1936). German expressionist cinema had a more profound impact on Disney’s first long features: the influence of Friedrich Murnau’s Faust (1926) is omnipresent in several sequences of Fantasia.

Architecture and Landscapes

The décor always played a capital role in Disney’s films and great care was taken over them. The Multiplan camera invented and used by Disney Studios moved along large panoramic decors, painted by specialised artists in gouache on cardboard, glass or celluloid. Great efforts were made to find suitable locations, sometimes in Europe. Pinocchio’s village was modelled on the mediaeval city of Rothenburg in Bavaria. Sleeping Beauty’s castle was a cross between the illuminations of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, drawings by Viollet-le-Duc and the extravagant castles of Louis II of Bavaria. Forests took their inspiration from 15th-century Chinese painting, Japanese prints or American or English forests. Bird’s-eye views drew on the work of the American regionalist painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. The influence of Gaspard Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin’s landscapes can be seen in Fantasia, and that of the Flemish and Italian primitives in the décors for Sleeping Beauty.


The 19th- and early 20th-century illustrators who radically renewed the theme of anthropomorphism had a profound influence on Disney Studios: Grandville, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Benjamin Rabier, Heinrich Kley and Beatrix Potter inspired many Disney characters. Although Disney’s anthropomorphic animals are usually kindly treated there are some films in which this transformation – of trees in particular – triggers revulsion and terror, as in the scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when the heroine flees into the forest after narrowly escaping death at the hands of the huntsman.

The Sources of Disney Characters

Character development was a complicated process involving countless meetings in which Walt Disney took an active part. He outlined their main traits – and overall graphic appearance if he was not satisfied with the initial sketches. These discussions and the combination of several sources – historical, pictorial and cinematographic – gave rise to the main characters who were then animated from model sheets and sometimes plaster prototypes. But the roles played by the scenarists, artists and Disney himself are so closely interlocked that it is difficult to reconstitute he process. The ambiguous figure of the Wicked Queen in Snow White is a good example. While Disney suggested that the Queen should be a mix of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf, but her face finally took the features of the American actress Joan Crawford (1908-1977) and her general silhouette seems to be derived from the column statue at the entrance to Naumberg Cathedral in Germany. The transformation of the Queen into a Witch is taken from various cinematographic versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And the Witch herself perpetuates the iconographic tradition developed during the 19th century.

Salvador Dali : the Destino Adventure

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney greatly admired each other. We do not know who took the first step; Disney probably suggested working with Dali while the artist was in Hollywood in 1945 for Hitchcock's film Spellbound. When the American press heard of the project, it poked fun at the unlikely encounter between the “Master of the soft watches” and the “Master of Mickey Mouse”. But Destino, as the film was called, was not made during the lifetime of the two men. Some hundred drawings and paintings have survived, the most spectacular of which are shown in the exhibition. Destino was finally completed in 2003, on the basis of Dali’s work, under the direction of Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.

The Influence of the Disney World on Contemporary Art

The production of the Disney studios quickly attracted artists, especially from the movie world. Eisenstein and Prokofiev, when they were working on Ivan the Terrible (1945), took an interest in the work of Disney and the conductor Léopold Stokowski on Fantasia. By the mid-sixties Disney enjoyed immense, universal popularity. Since the release of Snow White in 1937, several generations have been raised on his films and have not forgotten them. Pop Art made Mickey and Donald into icons.

As the French painter Robert Combas put it in 1977: “Mickey is no longer Walt’s property, he belongs to us all”. After drawing on Western art from all periods, Disney’s world became in its turn a source of inspiration for artists as diverse as Christian Boltanski, Bertrand Lavier, Peter Saul, Err? and Gary Baseman.

Media partners: Europe 1, TF1 and le Journal du Dimanche.


only in german

Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney / Il était une fois Walt Disney
The Disney Studios’ Artistic Sources

16.09.06 - 15.01.07 Grand Palais, Paris
08.03.07 - 24.06.07 Musée des beaux-arts, Montreal