Centuries-old art that inspired Disney arrives at the Met

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

A just-opened exhibit at the Met, “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” showcases how historical European design influenced both the animator and those that worked for him.

The exhibition goes back to the post-World War I era, when a 16-year-old Disney travelled to France to work for the Red Cross. He fell in love with the buildings and the art. A subsequent trip through Europe in 1935, when he was in his 30s, provided further inspiration. He filmed the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles during those travels; decades later, its design would be used as a clear reference by Disney artists for the backdrop for the famed ballroom scene in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Just a week old, the exhibit has already drawn excited crowds and lines outside of its galleries.
Just a week old, the exhibit has already drawn excited crowds and lines outside of its galleries.
Stefano Giovannini

“He sucked it all up like a sponge,” said 36-year-old Wolf Burchard, a Met associate who curated the new display, which is on until March 6 and already drawing lines outside the galleries.

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Disney’s travels also opened his eyes to gothic revival architecture, which made its way into 1950’s “Cinderella,” and of medieval art, which inspired the look of 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

While some inspirations — such as modeling “Sleeping Beauty” off of medieval tapestries — are direct and specific, Disney drew on others, such as rococo references for the Lumiere character in “Beauty and the Beast,” more generally.

“The end product often doesn’t look like the original source of inspiration — and I think that’s really important,” said Burchard. “Because that shows that Disney animators are not just unimaginatively copying their forebears, but they’re actually creating something new.”

Here, the backstories of four items and how they influenced Walt Disney and Co.

Tiny rooms, big dreams

Though small in size, this miniature French interior, and other miniscule models like it, helped Disney form the larger-scale idea for Disneyland.
Though small in size, this miniature French interior, and other miniscule models like it, helped Disney form the larger-scale idea for Disneyland.
The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Disneyland in California — the fantasy park that opened in 1955 across 160 acres of former orange groves — finds its roots in something much smaller. The late American artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s 1930s miniature period rooms — dozens of small-scale reproductions of stately European, American and Asian interiors — caught the eye of Walt Disney in 1939 while on display in San Francisco. “These rooms were created for Americans who couldn’t travel [abroad] … and because they’re so extremely accurate, they really help in the imaginative leap of traveling,” said Burchard. At the Met, visitors can see Thorne’s roughly 18 by 24 by 23-inch miniature French boudoir from the Louis XV period, which shows a room crowned with a chandelier that’s surrounded by walls with ornate moldings. Such detailed re-creations compelled Disney to initially conceive of Disneyland as a model town, with particular attention to imaginative play. “They are about this childlike fantasy,” said Burchard of Thorne’s rooms. “This idea of escapism, of letting your imagination run free — children looking at it and letting their minds travel.”

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

Flower power

Using medieval tapestries as an influence, Eyvind Earle created the prototype for "Sleeping Beauty" using a similar technique for keeping the lush foreground and background in crisp focus.
Using medieval tapestries as an influence, Eyvind Earle created the prototype for “Sleeping Beauty” using a similar technique for keeping the lush foreground and background in crisp 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 put them on display at the Cloisters uptown. Disney employee John Hench took in the tapestries during a 1950s trip to NYC. “[He] returned to Los Angeles suggesting to Disney that the ‘Unicorn Tapestries’ really should be a template for the aesthetics and for the storytelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” said Burchard. “Disney then employed the art director Eyvind Earle to create exactly that stage set, and it’s considered one of the most artistically sophisticated of all 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 of which are in saturated tones and crisp focus. The idea is “stepping into a tapestry where the foreground and the background are reproduced in the same level of detail,” Burchard said. According to the exhibit’s catalogue, Earle once said, “I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometrical patterns. I made a medieval tapestry out of the surface wherever possible. All my foregrounds were tapestry designs of decorative weeds and flowers.”

This "Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music" tapestry hangs alongside concept art for "Sleeping Beauty" for similar design influences.
This “Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music” tapestry hangs alongside concept art for “Sleeping Beauty” for similar design influences.
Courtesy of The Met

With the “Unicorn Tapestries” far uptown, the new exhibition features the 16th-century “Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music” tapestry next to the Earle art to illustrate the influence.

Let there be light

Though the constraints of hand-drawn animation ultimately prevented Lumiere from having a more ornate body, Rococo influences led designers to give him other ornamented designs in order to bring him to life.
Though the constraints of hand-drawn animation ultimately prevented Lumiere from having a more ornate body, rococo influences led designers to give him other ornamented designs in order to bring him to life.
Walt Disney Animation Research Library, © Disney

Candlesticks from France’s 18th-century rococo period — a time known for its highly ornamental designs — served as inspiration for Disney animators to develop the just-as-flamboyant Lumiere character in “Beauty and the Beast.” In the exhibit, a 1991 work of concept art for Lumiere is paired with a gilt bronze candlestick made between 1735 and 1750 by the designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier.

The inspiration for Lumiere came from Rococo candlesticks. This one, by Meissonnier, is a good example for showing its abstract shapes bringing movement to an otherwise inanimate object.
The inspiration for Lumiere came from rococo candlesticks. This one, by Meissonnier, is a good example for showing its abstract shapes bringing movement to an otherwise inanimate object.
Courtesy of The Met

The inspiration for Lumiere isn’t specific to this one candlestick, but rather the period aesthetic overall; both pieces aim to show visitors how somewhat theatrical design can breathe life into inanimate objects. The concept art from the film shows “the melting wax that forms [Lumiere’s] shifty-looking face, and then you have the shiny metal candlestick itself, and you can see how the arms move to inform how the animation works,” said Burchard. Meanwhile, the 18th-century candlestick, perched on a rotating platform, shows off a series of glittery curves that give a sense of movement to an otherwise ordinary object. “This is a different type of animation,” said Burchard. “This is how, pre-cinema and pre-hand drawn animation, the rococo designers were trying to animate the object through … undulations and carrying the eye across a complicated abstract surface. It’s the most incredible work.”

Mi castle, su castle

These four Rococo vases, though not a direct influence, have elements that resemble Disney castles.
These four rococo vases, though not a direct influence, have elements that resemble Disney castles.
Stefano Giovannini

Inside the exhibit’s last gallery, viewers get a look at four towering French porcelain vases capped with pink and green domes. Standing next to each other, the vases bear a similar outline and color scheme to Disney castles. Made around 1762 by 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 isn’t clear if he saw them.

Similar to the ornate wedding cake look of the porcelain vases, Disney castles have similar shapes and colors, such as this one near Paris, France.
Similar to the ornate wedding cake look of the porcelain vases, Disney castles have similar shapes and colors, such as this one near Paris, France.
Getty Images

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

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

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