Taking into account the attention lavished on other world-famous Swedes such as Greta Garbo, Björn Borg, Abba and Ingmar Bergman, it seems strange that Gustaf Tenggren – in Sweden – created barely a blip on the celebrity radar. Especially as his career is truly remarkable.
Born in 1896 in a dilapidated soldier's cottage in the parish of Magra in Vastergotland, Western Sweden, Gustaf moved with his family to a suburb of Gothenburg immediately before the turn of the last century. With eight people living in a one-room apartment, it soon became necessary for Gustaf to start making a contribution to the family finances. After four years in school, he found work as an errand boy, but gradually began an apprenticeship as a lithographer. With the assistance of a scholarship, he started studying at the Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Industrial Design) school at the age of 13, moving on to Valand Academy of Art three years later. During his last year at school (1916–17), he had already made a start on his career as an artist and illustrator.
After several completed commissions in Copenhagen, he took the final leap to the United States in the summer of 1920. He had family in Cleveland, Ohio, as two of his sisters had previously settled there. It was there that Tenggren founded his reputation as a unique sketcher and artist, gifted with a visionary, sometimes bizarre imagination. The image world he created was a cocktail of strange creatures from the fairy tales of his Swedish childhood, Caribbean pirates, mythological heroes from the world of antiquity, and Arabian merchants and slave girls from The 1,001 Arabian Nights. Tenggren's move to New York City was the next logical step, and he quickly established himself there as a worthy competitor to the best-known illustrators on the American market at that time: n. c. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and j. c. Leyendecker. A range of illustrated books, calendars, lucrative advertising commissions, portraits and magazine illustrations generated plenty of income, and made his name famous during the 1920s.
By the time he was headhunted by Walt Disney in 1936, he had actually developed into a star artist with the status of a legend. During the three years he was employed at the studio, he worked on a number of Disney's most famous films, including Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia.
After parting company with Disney in 1939, he entered into a long-term working relationship with the Artists and Writers Guild, the book agents of the Western Printing publishers. From the 1940s onwards, he produced a string of million-selling picture books for children, many of them sold with the prefix 'Tenggren's' – Tenggren's Mother Goose, for example. His long series of Little Golden Books were huge commercial successes. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, one of them – The Poky Little Puppy – had actually sold 15 million copies, making it the best-selling illustrated children's book of all time in the United States.
At the time of his death in 1970, he had illustrated 50 books in as many years in the United States, and had become an institution in American children's book culture.
Text Lars Emanuelsson
Gustaf Tengren at Fine Art & Antiques
For more information
Pierre Olbers, tel: +46 8 453 67 61