Friday, 21 October 2011

Disney Artist Mary Blair's 100th Birthday

You may not recognise her name, but chances are you have seen her work.  Mary Blair drew concept art for the Disney classics Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Cinderella.  She also worked on advertising campaigns for products ranging from Maxwell House coffee to Pepsodent tooth paste.  Mary Blair was born on this date 100 years ago in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Born Mary Browne Robinson, her family moved to Texas when she was very small and moved to California when she was seven years old. She attended San Jose State College, then won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.  In 1934 she married fellow artist Lee Blair. After graduation she took a job with MGM's animation unit.  It was in 1940 that she joined her husband Lee at Disney.

Initially at Disney she worked on the "baby ballet" sequence of the never released second part of Fantasia, as well as on an early version of Lady and the Tramp. She was part of the Disney expedition that went to South America in 1941. There she painted water colours of what she saw. Because of her work in South America she was named art supervisor on Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. She also served as art supervisor on Make Mine Music. Following World War II, she worked as part of the animation department on Song of the South, Melody Time, So Dear to My Heart, The Adventures of Icabod and Mr.  Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

Following Peter Pan Mrs. Blair left Disney to pursue a career as a freelance graphic artist. She worked on advertising campaigns for Nabisco, Persodent, Maxwell House, and Beatrice Foods among others. She also illustrated books for Golden Books, as well as designed sets for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas shows. She served as colour designer on the 1967 movie musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

At the request of Walt Disney himself, Mary Blair worked on the attraction "It's a Small World." She also created the mural art for the Tommorowland Promenade and similar murals.

Mary Blair died at the age of 66 on 26 July 1978 at the age of 67. The cause was a cerebral haemorrhage.

There can be no doubt that Disney owes Mary Blair an enormous debt. She brought modern art to the studio and revolutionised the look of their films. Before Mary Blair, the look of most Disney films was definitely realist, drawing inspiration from such illustrators as Normal Rockwell and artists as Thomas Hart Benton. Mary Blair broke away fro Disney's realist tradition, utilising abstract shapes and bold use of colours. In fact, it is for her mastery of colour that Mary Blair is perhaps best known, a mastery seen in her work with Disney, her commercial art, and her fine art. The influence of Mary Blair was particularly strong in the late Twentieth Century, as it could be felt in everything from the Pop Art of the Sixties to advertising to animated films.


Mary Blair's influence can still be felt on animation to this day. Both Pixar and Disney show her influence, as can be demonstrated by such films as Up and The Princess and The Frog. If Mrs. Blair was one of Disney's favourite artists, it is perhaps because she opened him up to a world much more fantastic than those of his earlier films. It was a world of astounding colours and incredible shapes. Even at a studio as influential and esteemed as Disney, Mary Blair was a singular talent.

No comments: