Gustaf Tenggren was born in 1896, in Västra Götaland County, Sweden. During a career spanning 60 years, he exercised a spectrum of styles including Art Nouveau, Cubism, Realism, and Expressionism, urging some to call him “a walking history of art.”
Tenggren received a scholarship to The Valand School of Fine Art in Gothenburg, Sweden. Educated in Scandinavian techniques, and spurred by their myths, at the age of 20 he began illustrating for the famous Swedish children’s Christmas annual, Bland Tomtar och Troll (Among Elves and Trolls). Beginning in 1917, he would go on to work on the annual for 9 years.
In 1920, he left Sweden for America. First, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, then two years later relocated to New York. There he found work illustrating for children’s books, and from 1924, Tenggren had a steady stream of projects. In addition to illustrating books The Good Dog Book, The Red Fairy Book, Peggy’s Playhouses, A Dog of Flanders, his illustrations appeared in Good Housekeeping and in advertisements for the International Silver Co, Heisey’s Glassware, Elgin Watches. Much of this early work exhibited strong Arthur Rackham influences, however, he was remarkable versatility and adapted to assignments.
In 1936, whilst working at games company, Milton Bradley, Tenggren was approached by The Walt Disney Company. Hired for his “Old World” look, he served as the chief illustrator on their very first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Mainly illustrating backgrounds, he also lead a workforce of around 700 artists. He worked on feature films Bambi (1942) and Pinocchio (1940), as well as Silly Symphonies shorts The Ugly Duckling and The Old Mill. Tenggren’s Scandinavian heritage were very visible in his detailed backgrounds.
In 1940, Tenggren left Disney and his Rackham influences behind him. Now armed with a marketable name, his output increased dramatically. He went back to illustrating children’s books. And from 1942 to 1962, he worked for Little Golden Books on titles “Tawny Scrawny Lion,” “Little Black Sambo” and “The Poky Little Puppy.” The latter, is one of the most popular children’s books of all time, having sold approximately 15 million copies. His very last book was “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.” Tenggren died in 1970 in Southport, Maine.
After his death, some of his remaining art was donated to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. Which is a special collection of children’s literature research. In 2008, In memory of Gustaf Tenggren, a 30ft bronze sculpture of Pinocchio, designed by pop artist Jim Dine, was erected in Borås, Sweden.
The official Gustaf Tenggren website is a great place to read more about him. A comprehensive art monograph on Gustaf Tenggren, containing 250 images, was released in 2014. Sadly, only in Swedish at the moment, you can read more about it here. You can, of course, find much of his Disney artwork in various publications. Two books that I recommend checking out are Before the Animation Begins – The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists and They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age which features Tenggren art on the front and back cover.