Met Museum explores Disney’s fascination with French decorative arts

Met Museum explores Disney’s fascination with French decorative arts

In January of 1939, The New York Times covered Walt Disney’s entry into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described then by the newspaper as “the Valhalla to which all American artists, good and bad, hope to go, preferably before they die.” The artist’s induction came after he gifted the museum two watercolors, painted on celluloid and depicting scenes from the recently released, hand-drawn animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). A month later, New York Times Magazine published an interview with Disney that asked in a caption: “It’s Disney, but is it art?”

Walt Disney Studios (American, established 1923). “The Vultures,” ca. 1937. Gouache on two layers of celluloid over watercolor and gouache background. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the artist, 1938.

This question (and its answer) greets guests inside the Met’s first-ever show dedicated to the American animator. Titled “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” the exhibition examines the influence of European art on Disney and the films of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Full of fairytales, preparatory sketches and clocks you’d expect to come to life, the installation highlights the imaginative qualities of 18th-century European decorative arts and design works and their correlation to what Disney artists depicted in their drawings and on screen.

The show opened Dec. 10 and will be on view at the museum through March 6, 2022, before traveling to London’s Wallace Collection, co-organizer of the exhibition with the Met.

“By pairing animated cartoons with eighteenth-century artifacts, ‘Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts’ incites a conversation between two artistic realms that may at first appear worlds apart — one made for the many, the other for the few,” writes Wolf Burchard, the associate curator of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Met, in the exhibition’s extensive catalog. “And yet, as the exhibition reveals, these works have much in common and gain greatly from being examined in the context of one another.”

Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.

Backdropped by music from Disney films, the exhibition begins by contextualizing Disney’s travels to Europe, making note of the vast library of 335 art and illustrated books he brought back with him after a sweeping tour of England, Scotland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy in the summer of 1935. These works would come to be sources of inspiration and resources for Disney artists as they pushed the art form into new realms of entertainment.

The subsequent gallery spaces showcase various sketches, prop storybooks and video clips of films from the Disney canon, including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (with the Met’s 1938 acquisition on view), “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Objects and paintings from the Met’s collection (“The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, Jean Honoré Fragonard’s “The Swing” and Juste Aurèle Meissonnier’s sinuous bronze candlesticks, to name just a few) provide context to and examples of the motifs found in Disney’s works.

“Cinderella,” 1950. Mary Blair. Background painting. Gouache and graphite on board. Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney.
Meissen Manufactory (German, 1710–present). Johann Joachim Kändler (German, 1706–1775). Faustina Bordoni and Fox, ca. 1743. Hard-paste porcelain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964.

“Both Disney animated films and Rococo decorative works of art are infused with elements of playful storytelling, delight, and wonder,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of the Met. “Eighteenth-century craftspeople and 20th-century animators alike sought to ignite feelings of excitement, awe, and marvel in their respective audiences.”

Beyond depicting examples of the ways that the art forms intersected, the exhibition highlights how Disney artists approached the shared Rococo principle of “animating the inanimate.” In the section “Objects Come to Life,” for instance, concept art for “Beauty and the Beast” sits in conversation with fanciful 18th-century items, such as a multi-branched gilt bronze candlestick and Sèvres’ wall sconces designed by Jean-Claude Duplessis. Here, notes on sketches of Disney Animation Studio’s anthropomorphized Lumière, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts provide delightful insights into movement and character.

Case attributed to André Charles Boulle (French, 1642–1732); After a design by Jean Berain (French, 1640–1711); Clock by Jacques III Thuret (1669–1738) or more likely his father, Isaac II Thuret (1630–1706) Clock with pedestal, ca. 1690. Case and pedestal of oak with marquetry of tortoiseshell, engraved brass, and pewter; gilt bronze; dial of gilt brass with white enameled Arabic numerals; movement of brass and steel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1958.
“Beauty and the Beast,” 1991. Peter J. Hall. Concept art. Watercolor, marker and graphite on paper. Walt Disney Animation Research Library. © Disney

The exhibition closes out with a look at Disney architecture, paying close attention to the influence of French and German designs on Disney’s fairytale castles and its famous amusement parks.

Take a peek at “Inspiring Disney” in the images from the exhibition below.

Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.

Top Image: "Beauty and the Beast," 1991. Mel Shaw (American, 1914–2012). Concept art. Pastel on board. Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney