Mary Blair concept art of Alice in Wonderland, showing Alice and the White Rabbit standing in front of a bright pink and white cottage

Mary Blair: Her Legacy at Disney and Beyond

Mary Blair. The name probably doesn’t sound familiar to you. However, her artwork will probably have a sense of familiarity to it. That is because of her influence on one of the most famous companies in the world, the Walt Disney Company.

Her work has graced some of the most famous and beloved Disney movies and attractions of all time. Her modernist style, featuring unique colors and simple, almost abstract forms, was a huge influence on post-WWII Disney. Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland? Those are just a few of the movies she helped to create the look for.

Her work was not just influential, but a favorite of Walt Disney himself. He saw something unique in her art, something undeniably charming and full of life and wonder. When looking at her colorful, fun works, it is not hard to see why he would think such a thing. This makes it all the more surprising that her work took many years to be properly recognized. For a long time, she was forgotten, or put in as a brief aside, by Disney historians. Thankfully, this has been changing within the past decade with books and museum shows helping to bring her work to light. With any luck, this article, along with others like it, will continue to help her notoriety along.

Personal Life

Mary Blair was born on October 21st, 1911, in McAlester, Oklahoma. In the early 1920s, her family had moved to Morgan Hill, California. As a young woman, she attended San Jose State University, graduating in the year 1931. However, her schooling was not over yet. Her art skills already apparent, she was scouted for a scholarship at Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art Institute. (Taylor, 2014) Here she really honed her skills. So much so that she became a member of the California School of Watercolor.

Around the time she had graduated, she met and married her husband, Lee Blair. With him, she had two children, both boys. For much of her life she was moving around the country, going between California and New York at different points. For her whole life, she continued making both professional and personal art.

On July 26, 1978, her life was tragically cut short, with a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death.

Early Mary Blair watercolor painting of houses on a hill with a clothesline next to them on a sunny day
Backyards, Mary Blair, early 1930s, found on Wiki Art

Work Before Disney

In the early 1930s, Mary Blair worked for many different animation studios. The most notable one of these studios was Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. However, she was less than thrilled with the position. She only ever worked on someone else’s project, and could not have the creative freedom she liked. She initially pursued her dream of working in fine art and illustration. (Anderson, 2021) However, she would soon find that animation work would come calling for her again. This time, it was in the form of the Walt Disney company. They had hired her husband, Lee Blair, but they had really wanted Mary herself to join them as well.

Her Beginnings at Disney

Blair was initially hired in the year 1940, on April 11th. There, she did some concept art for works such as Fantasia, Dumbo, and Lady and the Tramp while she was there. She even worked on a potential short for an early draft of a second Fantasia film. (Disney) However, her tenure did not last long. Only a little over a year later, on June 13, 1941, she decided to quit. Once again, it was because she could not follow her own vision.

However, she would join the company again only two months later. Walt Disney, his wife, and some animators were going on a Goodwill Tour sponsored by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to South America. Eager to go, she went back to get her job. Walt gave her her job back, as well as a spot on the trip. It was this trip that would change her style permanently. (DailyArtMagazine, 2022)

Mary Blair concept art of Peter Pan, children flying at night in front of Big Ben
Concept art of Peter Pan (1953), Mary Blair, found on Wiki Art

Important and Influential Works for Disney and Others

She continued to work for the Walt Disney company all the way until 1953. At this point, she went back to freelance work. She worked on her paintings and did illustrations for advertisements and children’s books. Among her most famous children’s books are the ones she did for Little Golden Books. She even did the color design for the live action film How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (Taylor, 2014)

She would not return to Disney again until 1963, when Walt asked her a favor. He wanted her to help design a boat ride for the 1964 World Fair in New York. It was to be made for the United Nations Children’s Fund Pavilion. This would soon turn into the beloved Disneyland attraction “It’s a Small World”, one that would soon be in Disney theme parks worldwide. (DailyArt Magazine, 2022)

After Walt’s death, she had very little work to do for the company. The remainder of her work for them was murals created for Disney hotels and parks. She would also make minor contributions to other attractions at the parks. Without Walt around, it seemed others at the company did not appreciate her talents all that much.

People working in a field, collecting wheat, wearing traditional clothing
Street Market Card, Mary Blair, 1941, CC-BY-SA-4.0, found on Wikimedia Commons

Evolution of Mary Blair’s Artstyle

Mary Blair’s art style from the 1930s and throughout the early 1940s is very different from the typical style she is known for now. Her early works were watercolor scenes done in darker, earthier tones. Many of them were paintings of different areas around California, like beaches or city scenes.

It was not until her going on a trip to South America with Walt Disney and others from the company that her style shifted into what it is today. Inspired by the culture of the countries they visited, her art gained a brighter color palette. She especially took inspiration from indigenous clothing and decorative arts that she saw on the trip. It was more than just the simple aesthetics that changed her art, though. She realized on this trip that every culture’s distinct aesthetics could provide inspiration for her works. All of a sudden, she found everything interesting, everything had artistic potential and intrigue. (DailyArt Magazine, 2022)

Her art also became simpler in style, almost abstract in some ways. However, her backgrounds remained very detailed and lush. Her art was made with gouache and tempera paint for the most part, which was opaquer than watercolor.

The most important part of her art style was the color palettes. Not just the colors themselves, although they were notable. Walt Disney himself has been quoted saying she had painted “…colors that he had never heard of before”. However, it was the combinations that really stood out. It was said by a fellow employee that she could make two colors that most never thought would go together actually work. (Disney)

It was this new color and style that brought life to many of Walt Disney’s movies throughout the mid-century.

How Mary Blair Influenced the Look of Disney

The studio had needed something to help it recover from the economic trouble of the 1940s caused by the war. The company needed something to bring them into the modern age of animation. The solution was Mary Blair’s artwork, which brought a modernist style to Walt Disney animation for the first time ever. The very simple art style was hard to adapt to Disney’s traditional style, however. This led to her influence not being noticeable in the movies themselves. (Talbot, 2019) That being said, some of her concept art and scenes did find their way into the films.

One of the most famous is the scene where Cinderella’s rags are turned into a beautiful dress by her fairy godmother. Reportedly, the scene is said to be one of Walt Disney’s favorites. These 24 sketches, used for only 18 seconds of animation, were among his all-time favorites. The sketches were highly detailed, with literally thousands of sparkles penciled in. One can also see her influence in some of the background and set pieces of films like The Three Caballeros and Alice in Wonderland, among others. (DailyArt Magazine, 2022)

Mary Blair held many hats while working for the animation studio. Blair did concept art, but also character design and styling, color design, etc. She was able to work from the beginning of the film with the writers and other crew members to design the way in which a movie looked and felt.  Her work was considered so important that when she moved back to New York in 1946, she was still kept on as part of the staff! Disney would personally fly her out to California for important work. (DailyArt Magazine, 2022)

Image of ride "it's a small world" during the holiday season during the day
“it’s a small world” holiday, HarshLight (on Flickr), January 2, 2016, CC-BY-2.0, found on Wikimedia Commons

Legacy of Mary Blair

However, she would not always receive the attention she deserved, despite how important she was to Disney. Even as modern Pixar artists cited her work as inspiration, she was not always cited among historians as an important part of Disney’s existence as a company. If she was mentioned, it was more like a footnote than a legitimate praise of her accomplishments. (Maragret, 2019) However, she was named a Disney Legend in 1991 for her work.

Thankfully, things have started to change in recent years. In 2009, there was an exhibit in Tokyo, Japan for her works titled “The Colors of Mary Blair”.  The exhibit was very successful. Around this time, she also started to have books made about her and her artwork.

There was another exhibition that took place in San Francisco at the Walt Disney Family Museum. This one spanned four months in 2014, from March 13th to September 7th. The exhibition was entitled “Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair”. There was also a book written by John Canemaker under the same title to promote the show. Canemaker had written another book, “The Art and Flair of Mary Blair”, just a little over a decade earlier.

Keeping Things in the Family

Her legacy has been kept alive by two of her nieces in the online sphere and beyond. Jeanne Chamberlain and Maggie Richardson run the “Magic of Mary Blair” website, which is dedicated to showing Blair’s works. It is a showcase of her work at Disney as well as her freelance work for advertisements and children’s books. Not only does the website show off her professional work, but it also gives people a view of her personal work. Some of these were paintings she made for herself. Others were gifts for friends and family members. Even some of her early, pre-Disney works are on here. It also features writings from John Canemaker, a huge fan of her works who has been for a while.

The website also sells merchandise featuring her art, such as clothing, toys, books, and prints. Some of these items can also be purchased on places like Amazon or the Pottery Barn.

It is through the work of people like Chamberlain, Richardson, Canemaker, and others who managed to bring her art into the public eye.

The art of Mary Blair continues to be inspirational and will likely only gain popularity as time goes on.

A Timeless Artist

I myself have often looked to her art as a source of inspiration for my own works. And it is not just because we have the same last name! It is true what people say about her paintings, that they can reach the inner child in all of us.

I can remember first being exposed to her art as a young tween. One would probably assume at that age I would already be past enjoying her simple, abstract, child-like visuals. That there was nothing a middle-school aged girl would find particularly influential. However, right away I found myself drawn into the bright and vivid world she had created. I can still remember being entranced by the interesting compositions and shapes, the bright colors that permeated the whimsical environments she imagined.

Her work is truly timeless. While her works are firmly rooted in the modernist style of the 1950s, there is an inherent magical quality to them. It is the reason why so many of her works for Disney are fondly remembered. The way she used color and designed backgrounds made movies like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland stand out. Her charming, adorable style and influence from other cultures continues to keep “It’s a Small World” a staple of every Disney theme park.

Her works have been looked at for decades, continuously being introduced to younger generations. There are children enchanted by her works for the first time. Older people looking at it with a tinge of nostalgia. And, hopefully, her wonderful art continues to charm and inspire people for decades to come.

References:

Anderson, Nichole. “Women in Design – Mary Blair.” Smith Design, SmithDesign, 10 Mar. 2021, https://smithdesign.com/blog/women-in-design-mary-blair/.

Magic of Mary Blair – A Lifetime of Imagination and Color Presented by the Nieces of Mary Blair., Magic of Mary Blair, 14 July 2022, http://magicofmaryblair.com/.

“Mary Blair.” D23, Disney, 29 Mar. 2018, https://d23.com/walt-disney-legend/mary-blair/.

“Mary Blair.” Illustration History, National Endowment for the Arts, https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/mary-blair.

MediaNews, and Robert Taylor. “Walt Disney Museum Exhibit Focuses on Bold Colorful World of Mary Blair.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 12 Aug. 2016, https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/03/10/walt-disney-museum-exhibit-focuses-on-bold-colorful-world-of-mary-blair/.

Profile, Guest. “Mary Blair: The Modern Artist Behind Walt Disney’s Magic.” DailyArt Magazine, DailyArt Magazine, 15 July 2022, https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/mary-blair/.

Talbot, Margaret. “The Women Who Helped Build Hollywood.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 28 Oct. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/04/the-women-who-helped-build-hollywood.

 

 

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