European art and architecture that inspired iconic Disney films

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Each year, more than a million people visit Neuschwanstein, a 19th-century castle in the Bavarian Alps famous for its Neo-Romanesque style and Gothic details, including vertical limestone towers and turrets topped by pointed roofs of a deep blue.

Once the residence of an introverted Bavarian monarch known as the “King of Fairy Tales”, the idyllic architecture – designed more for aesthetics than for defensive capabilities – would ultimately inspire the two castles in the animated films of Disney “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”.

Neuschwanstein’s neo-Romanesque design served as the basis for two Disney castles. Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Neuschwanstein also partly inspired the theme parks and the Disney logo – the latter becoming arguably the company’s most recognizable visual symbol outside of Mickey Mouse ears – and a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. York shows that the influences of European architecture and art don’t stop there. “Inspiring Walt Disney” presents an array of decorative arts from past centuries that resonate with some of the most famous animated decors produced by fever, including tapestries, furniture, Boulle clocks and Sèvres porcelain. The show combines these objects with artistic productions and works on paper by artists from the Disney studio.

"Inspire Walt Disney" presents a range of objects including pieces of Sèvres porcelain.

“Inspiring Walt Disney” presents a range of objects including pieces of Sèvres porcelain. Credit: Courtesy of the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California

The exhibit features gilded bronze candlesticks, Meissen porcelain teapots, and elaborate wall clocks that may remind visitors of secondary characters from 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast”, who are turned into enchanted household items and help to guide Belle’s path. Also on display are Lindau’s Gospels, a gem-encrusted tome from the 9th century, which inspired the storybook “Sleeping Beauty” in the opening sequence of the 1959 film.

The exhibition draws direct comparisons between European decorative arts and famous animated characters and sets from Disney films.

The exhibition draws direct comparisons between European decorative arts and famous animated characters and sets from Disney films. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Walt Disney Animation Research Library

Exhibition curator Wolf Burchard said that for many Americans, Disney films were their first encounter with visual media inspired by European culture and history.

“I think it’s fair to say that ‘Sleeping Beauty’, for example, was for many children the first prism through which they looked at medieval Europe, or ‘Cinderella’ and Europe. of the 19th century or ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the 18th century in Europe, and in France in particular. ”

Trips abroad

The exhibition chronicles the overseas trips of the company’s founder, Walt Disney, trips that would later influence some of the studio’s early films. The rural animator from Missouri first traveled to France during World War I as a teenager with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, but never saw a fight. He spent nine months in France after the war with the Red Cross, stationed in Paris opposite the Louvre, near the gardens of Versailles, and in an alpine setting in the Vosges.

The visual direction of "Sleeping Beauty" drew heavily on medieval artwork, including direct reference to the 9th century Lindau gospels.

The visual direction of “Sleeping Beauty” drew heavily on medieval artwork, including a direct reference to the 9th century Lindau Gospels. Credit: Daderot / Public domain / Walt Disney Archives

“It was his first trip abroad, and it was a transformational experience for him,” said Burchard. “It really changed his life and the lens through which he viewed art.”

When Disney returned home, he founded his animation company, first called Disney Brothers Studio, and introduced Mickey Mouse to the world through 1928’s “Steamboat Willie”, among other innovative new animations. He traveled abroad again in 1935, this time touring England, Scotland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy during the production of “Snow White”, and he returned with tons of books for artists at Walt Disney studios. .

Artists like Mary Blair have synthesized a number of references to create the magical sets of Disney.

Artists like Mary Blair have synthesized a number of references to create the magical sets of Disney. Credit: Walt Disney Animation Research Library

“He bought a lot of French fairy tales in Paris, but he also bought quite a few German fairy tales,” said Burchard, “he really liked what he called that quaint atmosphere of German fairy tales, with living woodland creatures and mushrooms. “

He also returned with visual cues that may have found their way into his films later. Toad Hall from 1949’s “The Wind in the Willows” is said to nod to the Tudor-style splendor of the Great Fosters English country hotel, according to the exhibit catalog, while its grounds may have – being the point of reference for the maze of hedges in the 1951’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

“Full-fledged” artists

But Burchard stressed that Disney alone was not the only artistic voice in his studio before his death in 1966. “It looks like it was designed and made by one person.”

The Disney animators were “all artists in their own right,” Burchard said. They did not copy any particular style or artistic reference, but synthesized their inspirations into vivid visual narratives. The show highlights the vibrant concept art of host Mary Blair for “Cinderella,” including the sinuous white furniture adorned with gold of the half-sisters’ rooms, to artist Eyvind Earle’s medieval vision for “ The Sleeping Beauty”. According to the exhibit, the seven large-scale woven compositions known as ‘Unicorn Tapestries’, made in the south of the Netherlands at the turn of the 16th century, may have been an integral part of the film’s visual development. The same goes for other famous Dutch works, such as the illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers, as well as paintings by Jan van Eyck.

the "Unicorn tapestries" were integral to the development of "Sleeping Beauty."

The “Unicorn Tapestries” were an integral part of the development of “Sleeping Beauty”. Credit: Public domain / Met Museum

Not all of the inspirations made it to the big screen – such was the case with the 18th-century oil painting by Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “The swing. ”“ Beauty in the Beast ”originally featured an opening sequence inspired by the painting – which features a young woman in a pink dress swinging through the air in a flowery setting – but it was cut when the overall visual direction of the film changed. Fragonard’s painting was again referenced in the early artistic concepts of “Tangled” of 2010, but never in the film, and then was eventually made a cameo appearance in “Frozen” from 2013
that of Fragonard "The swing" was a source of inspiration for the first art concepts for "The beauty and the Beast."

Fragonard’s “The Swing” was a source of inspiration for the early artistic concepts of “Beauty and the Beast”. Credit: Walt Disney Animation Research Library

It is the Rococo period in France, which portrays scenes of romance and youth with curved lines and in settings adorned with pastel tones that finds the closest kinship to some of the most famous Disney films of the 20th century. During this period, artists sought to create the illusion of movement through stationary paintings, such as “The Swing” and objects, such as the rippling gold candlestick which is exhibited in parallel to Lumière in “La Belle”. and the Beast ”. (Literary figures of the time also had a love for anthropomorphism, or giving inanimate objects human personalities.)

“Visually, you have vibrant, punchy colors,” Burchard said of the similarities. “And you have the ambition to animate that which is inanimate. So you create the illusion of life through animation.”

Rococo artists had an ambition "to animate what is inanimate" through sinuous curves and living shapes, said curator Wolf Burchard.

The rococo artists had the ambition to “animate that which is inanimate” through sinuous curves and living forms, said curator Wolf Burchard. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Walt Disney Animation Research Library

But he also draws a parallel with the intention of French decorators, who did not aim to make intellectual works of art, but rather things that would please the eye – a similar sentiment echoed by Disney, who insisted all his life that it was simply in the entertainment business.

“These are objects that were designed to encourage a visceral response rather than a cerebral response,” Burchard said. “(They) are supposed to look funny or pretty, or to look eccentric. And then we come 250 years later, and start to overinterpret some of these objects.”

Should Disney films be considered works of art? Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the institution would say yes. But in the spirit of the tradition of the French decorative arts, it is not a question of over-analyzing and enjoying the spectacle.

Inspire Walt Disney will run until March 6, 2022.


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