Tyrus Wong: How "Reclining Nude" Artist Shaped Disney's 'Bambi'
The artist had a profound influence on animation.
Google commemorated the life of Tyrus Wong on Thursday, with a special homepage doodle on what would have been his 108th birthday. The Chinese-American artist, born Wong Gen Yeo in China’s Guangdong province, served as the lead illustrator on Disney’s classic film Bambi — but his work went unrecognized for years.
Wong and his father moved to the United States when he was 10, eventually moving to Los Angeles. From an early age, he studied art at Los Angeles Central Library, focusing on art from the Song Dynasty. He received a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute and left junior high school to explore his talent, studying there for five years. Critics noted that Wong and similar artists took inspiration from their birthplace and merged it with their American education, forming a unique style. He formed a collective with other artists like Hideo Date called the Oriental Artists’ Group of Los Angeles. Wong’s work was exhibited alongside the likes of Matisse and Picasso in 1932 at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1936, he painted “Reclining Nude.”
Wong started working with Disney in 1938, originally as an intern that helped illustrators fill in gaps between frames to create movement. His moment to have an impact came during his work on Bambi. Fresh from the success of Snow White, the studio was seeking to strike the same luck, but the baroque, flowery style made the deers harder to see. Wong, according to the New York Times, recalled that “I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery … Gee, I’m a landscape painter!’”
Wong’s backgrounds were stunning, and doodle creator Sophie Diao described them as “atmospheric, blurry, and magical” work that “feel like distant memories that have been committed to paper.” Wong, however, was fired in 1941, amid the aftermath of an employee strike that he did not take part in, and he was credited as a background artist in the film itself. It wasn’t until 2001 that Disney named him a “legend” and a further 12 years later until his work was recognized in a retrospective.