In 1935, Walt Disney was trying to work out a way to do better animated features. On a visit to Europe, he was enthralled by the work of the great children’s book illustrators of the day. He tried to hire Arthur Rackham — probably the best of those alive at the time — but Rackham had been diagnosed with the cancer that was to kill him in a few years and was unwilling to spend his last energies working for Disney.
Still, there many other excellent European illustrators that were available to Disney and some of them were already in the United States. Swiss-born Albert Hurter was hired to take charge of a new Disney department for concept development. Among the artists who worked under his direction were the Hungarian Ferdinand Horvath and, for a little while, the Dane Kay Nielsen. But few of these proved as important to the development of Disney’s animated films as Swedish-born Gustaf Tenggren.
Tenggren’s father was also an artist who left the family in Sweden while he travelled to the United States to work. Young Gustaf was encouraged by his grandfather, also a painter. He showed early talent and in 1917, at the age of twenty, he illustrated the Swedish children’s annual Bland tomtar och troll.
Bland tomtar och troll began publication in 1907 and quickly established itself as a national fixture that is still being published today. The great artist John Bauer set a high standard for the annual with his magnificent trolls but, in 1918, when he was only thirty-six, Bauer, his wife, and their son all died when the steam ferry Per Brahe capsized. Tenngren illustrated Bland tomtar och troll through 1926, working from America after he emigrated in 1920.
Bauer and Rackham were both obvious influences on Tenggren’s work. Rackham and Bauer each developed the coupling of ink-line with soft water-color washes around the same time. Tenggren picked up Bauer’s manner of portraying people and Rackham’s grasping trees. But he was more than an imitator, Tenggren had his own concepts and methods that he was still working out as a young free-lancer in the United States.
The hey-day of the illustrated book was coming to an end in the 1920s. There were still children’s books, of course, and magazines and advertising. Tenggren tried them all before joining the Disney studio in 1936.
Albert Hurter’s concept artists worked up ideas that would serve as key illustrations for the animators. One of his first assignments was the Silly Symphony short “The Old Mill”. This short, like some other Silly Symphony cartoons were used by Disney to test out some of his new concepts and ideas. In this instance, the multiplane camera got a workout and Disnney’s European artists all had a hand in the artwork. Released in 1937, “The Old Mill” won an oscar and is often included in lists of greatest animated movies.
But all this was leadup to the movie that Disney knew would revolutionize the industry: Snow White.
Tenggren worked up character drawings of the dwarves, studies for their cottage, and other areas of the film. He used Rackham’s trees in the sequence where Snow White is in the forest.
The years spent developing and complating Snow White had exhausted everyone at the studio. Disney gave his employees a two-day holiday at Lake Norconian that he imagined would be a teetotal hotdog roast with campfire songs. Instead, according to Marc Eliot, the gang of young artists quickly turned the event into a drunken orgy. Disney was very angry, but the artists made a pact that if he fired one, they would all quit.
By all accounts Tenggren was quite a drinker and a womanizer, too. His first wife, who had emigrated with him from Sweden, left him when Tenggren took up with the woman who became his second wife. She is said to have been more accepting of his sexual peccadilloes.
Some of those who worked with Tenggren say that he was snobbish and arrogant, others that he was reserved but not unfriendly. Either way, Tenggren hung on with Disney through the making of Pinocchio and began work on background concepts for Bambi.
For that project, Tenggren took long trips to Yosemite to draw and paint the trees — perhaps he was trying to exorcise the Rackham from his forest concepts. On one or more of these trips, Tenggren was accompanied by the teen-age niece of fellow Disney artist, Milt Stahl, who was none too pleased with the matter. Nor was Disney pleased with Tenggren’s complex forest scenes which did not lend themselves to animation. So Tenggren left Disney in 1939 under a cloud.
Tenggren worked on virtually every scene in Pinocchio, but when that movie was released, his name was left off the credits.
Tenggren now developed a new style that was adapted to the Little Golden Books series. He illustrated The Poky Little Puppy, The Scrawny Tawny Lion, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, and so on, ad nauseum. But, in all fairness to Tenggren, some people love those books and The Poky Little Puppy is the best-selling illustrated children’s book of all time, with more than fifteen million copies sold. According to the Disney Wiki, Tenggren shows”an increasing use of phallic shapes” in his work of this period. You be the judge.
Toward the end of his life, Gustaf Tenggren became moody and depressed. He was deeply disturbed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and his last paintings reflect a kind of environmental pessimism. (I cannot locate any of these of good quality.) A life-long smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1970.
A great deal has been written about the Disney studio artists. In particular:
John Canemaker,Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney’s Inspirational SketchArtists
On Snow White see the official Disney release Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: An Art in Its Making
Lars Emanuelsson is working on a biography of Tenggren and has this website about him.
Animation Resources has several pages of scans of Tenggren work: see here and here.
The Illustrators page on Tenggren.
Filmic Light on Tenggren and Snow White