Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts

Dec. 10, 2022–March 27, 2023 | The international traveling exhibition "Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts" explores the early inspirations behind Disney Studios' creations, examining Walt Disney's fascination with European art and the use of French motifs in Disney films and theme parks.
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Decorative pink and white ceramic vase resembling an ornate castle

Attributed to Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716–1791), Sèvres Manufactory (French, founded 1740), Tower vase with cover (vase en tour), ca. 1762. Soft-paste porcelain, overglaze pink and blue ground colors, polychrome enamel decoration, and gilding, 20 1/2 x 9 x 9 in. (52.1 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm). The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A matching pair of decorative pink and white ceramic vases resembling an ornate castle

Attributed to Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716–1791), Sèvres Manufactory (French, founded 1740), Pair of tower vases with covers (vases en tour), ca. 1762. Soft-paste porcelain, overglaze pink and blue ground colors, polychrome enamel decoration, and gilding, 20 1/2 x 9x 9 in. (52.1 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm). The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A fanciful pink and blue painting of Sleeping Beauty's castle stands above visitors and a parade of horses and knights at Disneyland Paris

Frank Armitage, Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, Disneyland Paris, 1988. Gouache and acrylic on board, 45 x 21 in. (114.3 x 53.3 cm). Walt Disney Imagineering Collection. ©Disney.

Hand drawn concept sketch in both pencil and full-color of Cogsworth, an 18th century French aristocrat turned ornate clock in 1991's Beauty and the Beast.

Peter J. Hall (Scottish, 1926–2010), Cogsworth, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), 1989. Watercolor, marker, and graphite on paper, 23 7/8 x 18 in. (60.6 x 45.7 cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. © Disney.

A pencil and pastel color sketch of a talking tea pot with a pink ribbon on the lid, pink circles wrap around the middle, and the spout acts as her nose.

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

A blue and pearl white concept art sketch of Lumiere, a talking candelabra. Two lit candles act as his hands, a third in the middle is adorned with eyes, nose, and a mouth.

Kevin Lima (American, b. 1962), Lumiere, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), ca. 1990. Photocopy, gouache, and marker on paper, 11 7/8 x 10 in. (30.2 x 25.4 cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. © Disney.

A color sketch of Cogsworth, the talking desk clock. Two poses show him worried, with his "hands" stretched out and a worried look on his (clock) face.

Brian McEntee (American, b. 1957), Cogsworth, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), ca. 1990. Marker and photocopy on paper, 12 1/2 x 17 in. (31.8 x 43.2 cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. © Disney.

A pastel drawing in blues and greens and highlights of pink and red. An 18th century man has his hands out, having just pushed a woman in a pink dress on a swing hanging under a dense tree.

Mel Shaw (American, 1914–2012), Belle on a swing, concept art for Beauty and the Beast (1991), 1989. Pastel on board, 16 1/2 x 23 3/8 in. (41.9 x 59.4 cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library. © Disney.

Cinderella stares into a mirror just to the side of a set of stairs, holding a pink flower on her head as if it were an ornamental crown.

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

Architectural, two-dimensional sketch drawing of castle. Illegible hand-written notes point to various points on the sketch which may denote various heights, colors, and materials needed.

Miyuki Iga, Cinderella Castle, Tokyo Disneyland, 1980. Work on paper, 32 x 21 in. (81.3 x 53.3 cm). Walt Disney Imagineering Collection. © Disney.

A woman in a flowing white and peach dress sits on a swing hanging from a tree as a person in red holds a rope tied to the bottom of the swing as onlookers site or lay nearby.

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

A photo of a teapot from 1750. A deep beet purple flower and green leaves/stem adorn the side. An ornate flower sits on top and its stem stretches downward as the teapot handle.

Niderviller Manufactory (French, founded 1735) after engravings by Jacques Vauquer (French, 1621–1686) and Jacob Hoefnagel (Flemish, 1573–1632), Teapot, ca. 1750. Earthenware with tin glaze and enamel (petit feu faience), 4 1/2 x 7 in. (11.4 x 17.8 cm). Gift of MaryLou Boone. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A photo of a teapot from 1740. Pearl white with small, etched flower buds. Blue flower buds highlight the sides and top.

Sèvres Manufactory (French, founded 1740), Teapot, 1758. Soft-paste porcelain, 4 3/4 x 8 in. (12.1 x 20.3 cm). Gift of MaryLou Boone. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A black and white print of of two men using 18th century measuring tools to measure the height of a woman's extraordinarily tall, and manicured hair. One man uses a sextant while the other stands on a tall ladder using some sort of measuring pliers.

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

The international traveling exhibition "Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts" explores the early inspirations behind Disney Studios' creations, examining Walt Disney's fascination with European art and the use of French motifs in Disney films and theme parks.

Approximately 50 works of 18th-century European decorative art and design, many of which are drawn from The Huntington's significant collection, are featured alongside hand-drawn production artworks and works on paper from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Imagineering Collection, and The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Walt Disney (1901–1966) had a deep affection for France, having served there as an ambulance driver following World War I. It was then that he first became fascinated with Europe and European art. "Inspiring Walt Disney" highlights his art and architecture encounters during return trips following the war. Those visits became a profound source of inspiration for both himself and his studios; they also sparked his passion for collecting and building miniature furniture and dollhouse furnishings, foreshadowing the kind of creativity he would exercise in the creation of new "worlds" through his theme parks and films.

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 Shop (1934), one of Disney's "Silly Symphonies." These types of whimsical porcelain figures, 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 suggests connections between the remarkable technological advancements of the Meissen and Sèvres porcelain manufacturers over the course of the 18th century and the cinematic innovations pioneered by Disney animators at the beginning of the 20th century.

The next sections of the exhibition focus on two early animated features. The Cinderella (1950) section spotlights the barrier-breaking female artists who managed to enter the creative realm of Disney Studios, especially the celebrated 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 prop book, several pages of which will be on view in the exhibition.

Another part of "Inspiring Walt Disney" is devoted to Disney's most Rococo film, Beauty and the Beast (1991), famous for featuring inanimate objects that come to life—from the level-headed Mrs. Potts to the charismatic Lumiere. The exhibition explores anthropomorphism and zoomorphism in 18th-century French literature and decorative arts, the interiors of the movie'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, specifically the fairy-tale castles that are central focal points in many Disney movies and theme parks. While the fantastical buildings exist outside actual periods and styles, Disney's artists were heavily influenced by French and German architecture when creating their settings, particularly for the theme parks. The centerpiece of this section is the first bird's-eye view illustration of Disneyland, drawn by Herbert Ryman under Walt Disney's guidance over one weekend in the fall of 1953, as well as the only two known pairs of so-called Tower vases, made by Sèvres around 1762–63 and reunited for the first time. One pair is from The Huntington's collection, and the other is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A fully illustrated catalog, Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts, by Wolf Burchard—the curator of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is the associate curator in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts—is available at the Huntington Store. It is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.


Major support for this exhibition is provided by an anonymous foundation, Dorian Huntington Davis, and The Diane and Ron Miller Charitable Fund.

Additional support is provided by the Boone Foundation, The Florence Gould Foundation, The George and Marcia Good Family Foundation, The Ahmanson Foundation Exhibition and Education Endowment, and The Melvin R. Seiden-Janine Luke Exhibition Fund in memory of Robert F. Erburu.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Wallace Collection, in association with The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

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