Take a look at “Inspiring Walt Disney: the animation of French decorative arts”

Mel Shaw (American, 1914–2012), Beauty on a Swing, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), 1989. Pastel on panel, 16 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (16.5″ x 23.5″). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. ©Disney.
Manufacture de Sèvres (French, founded 1740), Teapot, 1758. Soft-paste porcelain, 4 3/4 x 8 in. (12.1 x 20.3cm). Gift of MaryLou Boone. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Jean-Baptiste Pater (French, 1695–1736), The Swing, ca. 1730. Oil on canvas, 18 x 21 3/8 in. (45.7 x 54.3cm). Adele S. Browning Memorial Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Chris Sanders (American, b.1962), Mrs. Potts, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), ca. 1990. Pastel on paper, glued to cardboard, 20 x 21 in. (50.8 x 53.3cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. ©Disney

After appearances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Wallace Collection in London (until October 16, 2022), the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California will present the international traveling exhibition “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” from December 10, 2022 to March 27, 2023. This exhibition explores the early inspirations behind the creations of Disney Studios, examining Walt Disney’s fascination with European art and the use of French motifs in Disney films and theme parks.

Around 50 works of 18th-century European decorative and design art, many from The Huntington’s extensive collection, will be displayed alongside hand-drawn production art and works on paper from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Imagineering Collection and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The presentation of the exhibition in California at The Huntington coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Walt Disney Company.

“We are thrilled to partner with our colleagues at The Met and The Wallace Collection to bring ‘Inspiring Walt Disney’ to Southern California,” said Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum at The Huntington. “The exhibition is a fun and fascinating way to share with a wide audience works from The Huntington’s remarkable collection of French decorative art, which are key examples of how art history has inspired the popular culture.”

Preview of the exhibition
Walt Disney (1901-1966) had a deep affection for France, having served there as an ambulance driver after the First World War. It was then that he was first fascinated by Europe and European art. “Inspiring Walt Disney” highlights his encounters between art and architecture during travels back after the war. These visits became a deep source of inspiration for himself and his studios; they also sparked his passion for collecting and building miniature furniture and dollhouse furniture, foreshadowing the kind of creativity he would exert in creating new “worlds” through his theme parks and movies.

The concept of “animating the inanimate” is explored in the first section of the exhibition, which features French and German Rococo porcelain figurines alongside story sketches for The China store (1934), one of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”. These types of whimsical porcelain figurines, originally inspired by the pastoral scenes of French Rococo painter Antoine Watteau and his contemporaries, were brought to life by the first generation of Disney animators. The exhibition proposes comparisons between the remarkable technological advances of the porcelain makers of Meissen and Sèvres during the 18th century and the cinematographic innovations developed by Disney animators at the beginning of the 20th century.

The following sections of the exhibition focus on two first animated feature films. The Cinderella (1950) highlights the female artists who managed to enter the creative realm of Disney studios, in particular the famous Mary Blair. The exhibition also highlights the medieval sources that Disney artist Eyvind Earle and his colleagues consulted for the style of Sleeping Beauty (1959). In 2011, the Huntington’s conservation team restored the Walt Disney Archives. Sleeping Beauty book of accessories, several pages of which will be visible in the exhibition.

Attributed to Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716–1791), Sèvres Manufactory (French, founded 1740), Pair of Tower Vases with Lids (Tower Vases), ca. 1762. Soft-paste porcelain, ground colors pink and blue overglaze, decoration in polychrome enamel and gilding, 20 1/2 x 9 x 9 in. (20.5″ x 9″ x 9″) The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.
Frank Armitage, Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland Paris, 1988. Gouache and acrylic on cardboard, 45 x 21 in. (114.3 x 53.3cm). Walt Disney’s Imagineering Collection. ©Disney.

Matthew Darly (British, ca. 1720-1780) and Robert Sayer (British, 1725-1794), Ridiculous Taste or the Absurdity of Ladies, 1774. Engraving, 14 x 9 7/8 in. (35.6 x 25.1cm). Collection of British Satirical Prints. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Mary Blair (American, 1911-1978), Cinderella in Front of a Mirror, concept art for Cinderella (1950), 1940s. Gouache, graphite, and ink on cardboard, 12 x 10 in. (30.5 x 25.4cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. ©Disney

Another part of “Inspiring Walt Disney” is dedicated to Disney’s most rococo film, The beauty and the Beast (1991), famous for featuring inanimate objects brought to life, from the level-headed Mrs. Potts to the charismatic Lumière. “Rococo art is all about movement, so it naturally lends itself to animation,” said Melinda McCurdy, British Art Curator at The Huntington and curator of the exhibition. “Objects like candlesticks twist and turn and stretch their branches like arms. It’s easy to see how such objects can seem to take on human characteristics and inspire characters like Lumière in The beauty and the Beast.” The exhibit explores anthropomorphism and zoomorphism in 18th-century French literature and decorative arts, the interiors of the film’s Enchanted Castle, and the design and animation of the Beast and other characters. Disney’s satirical take on rococo fashion will be explored alongside works from The Huntington’s collection of macaroni prints, 18th century illustrations that poked fun at the extreme fashion worn by the upper classes at the time.

Disney architecture is also examined, especially the fairytale castles that are the focus of many Disney films and theme parks. While fantasy buildings exist outside of actual time periods and styles, Disney artists were heavily influenced by French and German architecture when creating their sets, especially for theme parks. The centerpiece of this section is the first bird’s-eye view of Disneyland, drawn by Herbert Ryman under the direction of Walt Disney over a weekend in the fall of 1953, as well as the only two known pairs of so-called Tower vases. , made by Sèvres around 1762-1763 and brought together for the first time. One pair is from The Huntington collection and the other is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Like Disney castles, the Huntington Tower vases combine structure and whimsy,” McCurdy said. “They are functional potpourri designed to look like miniature fortified towers, with tall shingle roofs topped with cupolas, arched buttresses elaborately painted to look like brickwork, and gilded cannons. They are among the most elaborate productions of the Manufacture de Sèvres, and their large size and careful decoration make them objects of great luxury.

A fully illustrated catalog, Inspiring Walt Disney: the animation of French decorative artsby Wolf Burchard—the exhibition’s curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is Associate Curator of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts—is available at the Huntington Store or online at thehuntingtonstore.org. It is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

“Inspiring Walt Disney” originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it ran from December 10, 2021 to March 6, 2022; it is exhibited at the Wallace Collection in London from April 6, 2022 to October 16, 2022.

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