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Happy Birthday, Gustaf Tenggren!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 3, 2010 12:01am | Post a Comment
Today is the birthday of Gustaf Adolf Tenggren, a Swedish-American illustrator who worked on some of Walt Disney's most famous films. Had he not died in 1970, he would be 114 years old today.

     young Gustaff Tenggrern

Tenggren was born November 3rd, 1896 in  Magra Parish, in Västra Götaland CountySweden. His parents Aron and Augusta had seven children -- Gustaf was the second youngest. Gustaf 's father, Aron, was a painter and decorator, just like his father, Johan Teng, had been. After relocating the family to Göteborg in search of steadier support, he left the family and moved to the US.

  

Gustaf began working as a runner boy and as an apprentice by a lithographer's shop at eleven, to help support the family. After his artistic talent was observed, he obtained a scholarship in 1910 to, at only thirteen, attend the local art school, Slöjdföreningens skola.

In 1914 he received a scholarship at Valand, an art school in  Göteborg. His earliest subjects were Swedish through and through, illustrating Swedish folk and fairy tales for the annual Bland Tomtar och Troll, although their style was heavily indebted to Englishman Arthur Rackham's style. In 1918, he married his first wife, Anna Peterson. He first exhibited his work publicly in 1920. After that, he and his wife promptly moved to Cleveland, Ohio to join his sister. 

Gustaf Tenggren and Malin  

Two years later he moved to New York City. There, like fellow-future Disney employee Kay Nielsen, he began illustrating children's books, especially fairy tales, including Tanglewood Tales, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and The Christ Story for Boys and Girls. At the same time, he began working for Milton Bradley, where he remained until 1939. In 1930, he also re-married another Swedish-American, Malin (or Mollie) Froberg.

Snow White still

In 1936 Tenggren was hired as chief illustrator and art director on Walk Disney's first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although Tenggren was a natural choice for the Brothers Grimm adaptation, most of the fine detail characteristic of his illustrations was evident in the background paintings. In fact, most of his work for Disney would be as a background artist.


He worked as an uncredited inspirational artist on 1937's The Old Mill and on the conceptual designs on 1940's Pinocchio. However, my favorite work he did at Disney was the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment of Tenggren painting for Bambi 1940's Fantasia. For it, he, Vladimir Peter "Bill" Tytla, Kay Neilsen and others based their visuals on the story of Modest Mussorgsky's 1867 piece, Ночь на лысой горе ("Night on Bald Mountain"). Mussorgsky first began work on the piece in 1858. It was originally set on St. John's Eve (June 23), a Midsummer holiday on which, since pre-Christian times, various Northern and Eastern Europeans burn massive bonfires. The witches came in in 1860. In the cartoon, Chernabog, a Slavic demon, summons demons, ghosts, skeletons, witches, harpies, and other monsters for a sabbat before it segues into Franz Schubert's Ellens dritter Gesang for, in my opinion, a much less memorable segment (that I don't remember).

Tenggren quit Disney in 1940. A year later, he was followed by Alfred Abranz, Basil Davidovich, Bernie Wolf, Bill Meléndez, Bill Tytla, Bob Wickersham, Claude Smith, Cornett Wood, David Hilberman, Ed Love, Emery Hawkins, Frank Tashlin, Grant Simmons, Howard Swift, Jack Bradbury, John Hubley, Kenneth Muse, Maurice Noble, Preston Blair, Ray Patterson, T. Hee, Ted Bonnicksen, Tyrus Wong, Virgil Partch, Volus Jones, Walt Kelly, Walter Clinton, William Hurtz, Zack Schwartz and others. His last work at Disney was as an atmosphere sketch artist on 1942's Bambi.


The Poky Little Puppy Canterbury Tales The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs Jack and the BeanstalkKing Arthur Snow White and Red Rose

After leaving Disney behind, he left his established style behind too. From 1942 till 1962, he worked for  Little Golden Books, illustrating with his new look books like Tawny Scrawny Lion, Little Black Sambo and The Poky Little Puppy. The latter became the best-selling English Language hard cover children's book of all time. In the well-known story, the titular puppy is repeatedly punished for indulging in his curiosity and individuality. He did still tackle fantasy subjects, including Canterbury TalesKing Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs and Snow White and Rose Red.

Gustaf Tenggren died in 1970 at Dogfish Head in Southport, Maine. After his death, some Tenggren's art was donated to the University of Minnesota to be included in the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature. In his memory, a nine-meter-tall bronze sculpture of Pinocchio, designed by artist Jim Dine, has been erected in Borås, a town near Tenggren's birthplace.

Relevant Tags

Golden Age Of Illustration (1), Swedish-americans (1), Artists In Film (6), Animation (11), Sweden (5), Gustaf Tenggren (1), Fantasy (23), Walt Disney (8), Golden Age Of American Animation (1)