The age-old art that inspired Disney is coming to the Met


Walt Disney created rich and vibrant fantasies with his animation, but his inspirations were firmly anchored in the real world.

A exhibition which has just opened at the Met, “Inspiring Walt Disney: Animation of French Decorative Arts,” shows how historic European design influenced both the animator and those who worked for him.

The exhibit dates back to the post-war era, when a 16-year-old Disney boy traveled to France to work for the Red Cross. He fell in love with buildings and art. A subsequent trip through Europe in 1935, when he was in his thirties, provided him with new inspiration. He filmed the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles during these trips; decades later, his design would be used as a clear reference by Disney artists for the backdrop to the famous ballroom scene in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast”.

Barely a week old, the exhibition has already drawn crowds and excited queues outside its galleries.
Stefano Giovannini

“It sucked everything up like a sponge,” said Wolf Burchard, 36, a Met associate who curated the new exhibit, which is open until March 6 and is already drawing lines outside the galleries.

Disney’s travels also opened her eyes to Gothic Revival architecture, which made its way into 1950s “Cinderella”, and medieval art, which inspired the look of “Woods Beauty. dormant “from 1959.

While some inspirations – such as the modeling of “Sleeping Beauty” from medieval tapestries – are direct and specific, Disney took inspiration from others, such as the rococo references to the character of Light in ” Beauty and the Beast “, more generally.

“The end product often doesn’t look like the original inspiration – and I think that’s really important,” Burchard said. “Because it shows that the animators at Disney aren’t just unimaginatively copying their ancestors, they’re actually creating something new.” “

Here, the stories of four articles and how they influenced Walt Disney and Co.

Tiny rooms, big dreams

Although small in size, this miniature French interior and other tiny designs like this helped Disney shape the larger-scale Disneyland idea.
Although small in size, this miniature French interior and other tiny designs like this helped Disney shape the larger-scale Disneyland idea.
Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Disneyland California – the fantastic park that opened in 1955 on 160 acres of ancient orange groves – has its roots in something much smaller. The 1930s miniature rooms of late American artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne – dozens of small-scale reproductions of stately European, American and Asian interiors – caught the attention of Walt Disney in 1939 at an exhibition in San Francisco. “These rooms were created for Americans who could not travel [abroad] … And because they’re extremely precise, they really help in the imaginative leap of the trip, ”said Burchard. At the Met, visitors can see Thorne’s approximately 18 x 24 x 23-inch miniature French boudoir from the Louis XV period, which shows a room crowned with a chandelier surrounded by walls adorned with moldings. These detailed recreations forced Disney to initially design Disneyland as a model city, with particular attention to imaginative play. “They’re talking about this childish fantasy,” Burchard said of Thorne’s Bedrooms. “This idea of ​​escape, of letting your imagination run wild – children watch it and let their minds travel.”

The miniature hall is, in fact, small - and an attraction that visitors have photographed.
The miniature hall is, in fact, small – and an attraction that visitors have photographed.
Stefano Giovannini

The power of the flowers

Using medieval tapestries as an influence, Eyvind Earle created the prototype of "Sleeping Beauty" using a similar technique to keep the lush foreground and background in focus.
Using medieval tapestries as an influence, Eyvind Earle created the prototype for “Sleeping Beauty” using a similar technique to keep the foreground and background lush in focus.
Walt Disney Animation Research Library, © Disney

The visual inspiration for “Sleeping Beauty” was the floral “Unicorn Tapestries”, designed in Paris and woven in the southern Netherlands in the 1500s. The Met acquired the tapestries in 1937 and exhibited them at the Cloisters uptown. Disney employee John Hench looked at the tapestries on a trip to New York City in the 1950s. “[He] returned to Los Angeles suggesting to Disney that the “Unicorn Tapestries” really should be a model for the “Sleeping Beauty” aesthetic and storytelling, Burchard said. “Disney then hired art director Eyvind Earle to create exactly that setting, and it is considered one of the most artistically sophisticated films.” At the new exhibit, visitors can see a vibrant gouache work of Earle’s “Sleeping Beauty” concept art, which shows a thatched cottage surrounded by trees and plants, all in saturated tones. and sharp focus. The idea is to “step into a tapestry where the foreground and background are reproduced with the same level of detail,” said Burchard. According to the exhibition catalog, Earle once said, “I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometric patterns. I made medieval tapestry from the surface wherever possible. All of my early shots were tapestry designs of weeds and decorative flowers. ”

This "Shepherd and shepherdess making music" the tapestry hangs alongside the concept art for "Sleeping Beauty" for similar design influences.
This “The Shepherd and the Shepherdess Making Music” tapestry rubs shoulders with the conceptual art of “Sleeping Beauty” for similar design influences.
Courtesy of the Met

With the “Unicorn Tapestries” away from the city center, the new exhibit features the 16th century “The Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music” tapestry alongside Earle art to illustrate the influence.

Let there be light

Although the constraints of hand-drawn animation ultimately prevented Lumière from having a more ornate body, Rococo influences led designers to give it other ornate patterns in order to bring it to life.
Although the constraints of hand-drawn animation ultimately prevented Lumière from having a more ornate body, Rococo influences led designers to give it other ornate patterns in order to bring it to life.
Walt Disney Animation Research Library, © Disney

Chandeliers from the 18th century French Rococo period – an era known for its highly ornamental designs – inspired Disney animators to develop the equally flamboyant character of Light in “Beauty and the Beast”. In the exhibition, a 1991 conceptual artwork for Lumière is associated with a gilded bronze candlestick made between 1735 and 1750 by designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier.

The inspiration for Lumière came from the Rococo chandeliers.  This one, by Meissonnier, is a good example to show his abstract forms bringing movement to an otherwise inanimate object.
The inspiration for Lumière came from the Rococo chandeliers. This one, by Meissonnier, is a good example to show his abstract forms bringing movement to an otherwise inanimate object.
Courtesy of the Met

The inspiration for Lumière is not specific to this candlestick, but rather to the aesthetic of the time as a whole; both pieces aim to show visitors how a somewhat theatrical design can bring inanimate objects to life. The concept art of the film shows “the melting wax that forms [Lumiere’s] sly looking face, then you’ve got the shiny metal candlestick itself, and you can see how the arms move to inform the animation of the animation, ”Burchard said. Meanwhile, the 18th-century chandelier perched on a rotating platform features a series of scintillating curves that give an impression of movement to an otherwise ordinary object. “It’s a different kind of animation,” Burchard said. “This is how, pre-cinema and pre-hand-drawn animation, Rococo designers tried to animate the object through… ripples and to bring the gaze through a complicated abstract surface. It is the most incredible work.

Mi castle, su castle

These four rococo vases, although without direct influence, have elements that resemble Disney castles.
These four rococo vases, without direct influence, have elements that resemble Disney castles.
Stefano Giovannini

Inside the last gallery of the exhibition, spectators can admire four huge French porcelain vases topped with pink and green domes. Standing next to each other, the vases feature a similar outline and color palette to Disney castles. Made around 1762 by the Sèvres Manufactory, Burchard said these rococo pieces rank among the most ambitious porcelain vases ever created due to the level of detail, like windows carved into the domes. Two vases are on loan from the Huntington Library in California, which Disney visited, but it is not known if he saw them.

Similar to the wedding cake look adorned with porcelain vases, Disney castles have similar shapes and colors, like this one near Paris, France.
Similar to the wedding cake look adorned with porcelain vases, Disney castles have similar shapes and colors, like this one near Paris, France.
Getty Images

“The point that this means is not necessarily to say that Disney saw these vases and was inspired by them when overseeing the making of Disneyland,” said Burchard. But it’s the reasoning behind the design that matters. “The bottom line is that the Rococo designers used the same rhetoric to encourage our imaginations to run free, and these porcelain pieces are just as magical as a Disney castle.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave .; (212) 535-7710, MetMuseum.org


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