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The Met’s Exhibition Looks at Walt Disney’s Secret Inspiration

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has come up with something quite novel for such a historic and internationally venerated institution, with an exhibition that focuses on the work of animator Walt Disney and French art and design. It is hoped that the show will demonstrate just how much the American film producers ideas were inspired by European art movements of an earlier era. The Met is one of New York City’s best know galleries and its move into popular culture is seen by some as a forward step, albeit through the lens of 18th-century French decorative arts and design.


According to the Met, the show will be entitled Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts. It will be the first exhibition at the gallery to solely focus on the legacy of one of the world’s most famous animators. Some of his hand-drawn work, as well as animations that have been selected from the historic collection of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, will feature. The show opened in mid-December 2021, stating that the exhibition would draw new parallels between some of Disney Studio’s more ‘magical creations’ and European art. In particular, the show highlight some of the personal fascination Disney had with French motifs, design features that are to be found in both the early Disney movies and the theme parks the businessman later set up.

The exhibition has 60 works of art on display that were part of the 18th-century French tradition of decorative arts and design. Among them are a number of tapestries as well as some items of furniture. Elegant Boulle chronographs and Sèvres porcelain also feature as examples of the sort of thing Disney was fascinated by. These items have been arranged in such a way that they can be viewed alongside over a hundred production artworks and sketched ideas sourced from Disney’s own archive, the Walt Disney Animation Research Library and The Walt Disney Family Museum. Given that Disney was best-known as an animator, moving images also feature in the exhibition. Videos that connect some of Disney’s animation work to the French art of the 1700s can be seen, for example.

Photo: Paul Lachenauer / Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


According to the Met, the idea behind the exhibition was to have it coincide with the 30th anniversary of Disney’s famous Beauty and the Beast animation. Although this came out a long time after the studio’s founder had passed away in 1966, it was set in 18th-century Paris and consequently had a huge number of style references that honoured Disney’s fascination with this period of history. Much of this part of the exhibition is focused on the animated sequences that feature inanimate objects, usually highly stylised ones that evoke the period, that have been magically brought to life.

Disney Castles

The show also offers visitors the chance to explore the so-called Walt Disney Imagineering concept art. This shows how Disney effectively made something of a production line in drawings of many architectural designs that existed in real life. Illustrators at the studio, for example, used much of the style that can be seen in the castles of the Loire Valley to inspire them while the 19th-century Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle served as an inspiration for the famous Disney logo. Another key exhibit is the initial concept drawing that was made for Disneyland. This was put together over the course of just a few days in 1953 by Herbert Ryman as Disney himself gave instructions.

Wolf Burchard, the show’s curator said that by staging the Met’s first exhibition devoted to a popular culture animator, it was important to explore as many of Disney’s sources of inspiration as possible. Burchard went on to say that the show set the context for Disney’s interpretations of European folklore and fairytales by showing how the studio had filtered them through a lens of wider Western art and culture. The exhibition will run at the Met until March 6th 2022 after which it will move to London.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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