Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Guthrie Courvoisier and the Rise of Animation Fine Art

It's 1938 and a San Francisco gallery owner is about to expand the concept forever of what the world thinks of as art. Guthrie Courvoisier is a leading art expert as well as an admirer of Walt Disney animation, especially the latest smash-hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Courvoisier is certain that he can market and sell as fine art the thousands of individual inked and painted celluloid sheets that were created in the making of the film.

Courvoisier Cel Set-up, 1938.
Two different cels (Snow White + deer)
on hand-painted watercolor background
with airbrushing. Mounted on thin board.


The "cel" defined

(From p.59 Tomart's Illustrated Disneyana by Tom Tumbusch, 1990.)
A cel, short for celluloid, represents the action of usually one character in one frame of animated film. It takes 24 cels, photographed one at a time against a painted background, for each second of screen time...that's 1440 per minute.

Originally, cels were traced onto the front of clear celluloid sheets using ink and then painted on the reverse with specially prepared gum-based paints. They were intended to last long enough to meet production needs.The paints and inks were designed for easy removal, as early cels were washed and reused from film to film.

Prior to 1940, cels were made of nitrocellulose, an unstable and flammable material.

A new way of looking at it

While the marketing of film-themed products was nothing new to Walt and Roy Disney, the concept of selling the actual artwork was. Prior to this, cels were simply washed clean or thrown out when the film was completed. It was Guthrie Courvoisier who convinced them of the potential market for this animation art. On July 19, 1938, the Disney brothers granted Courvoisier Galleries exclusive rights to sell Snow White cels in galleries and museums around the world.

Image via Tomart's Illustrated Disneyana by Tom Tumbusch, 1990.

The Cel Setup Department
A special 20-person crew of Disney artists from the animation department was set up at the Disney studio under the direction of the late Helen Nerbovig to assemble and prepare the art. The program was so successful the art was being sold almost as fast as they could get it ready. After only one year, demand was actually growing beyond Courvoisier's ability to meet it. Source: http://www.courvoisiergalleries.com/animation-pioneer.html

Ink and Paint Supervisors Helen Nerbovig (pictured standing) with Leota Richards.
Image courtesy of Stuff From the Park.

The Disney crew would cut the characters from the cels and tape them to specially prepared backgrounds. These backgrounds ranged from hand-painted scenes similar to those in the film to lightly airbrushed impressions. Others might be on wood veneer with painted scenes, airbrushed shadowing, or the characters name. Still other backgrounds were made of patterned paper.

A new clear cel sheet was placed over the piece, the background glued to cardboard, and then matted. These pieces today are referred to as Courvoisier cels or set-ups.

Witch Cel and matching background, circa 1938.

The set-ups made at the Disney studio usually had several identifiers--two small labels on the rear of the art, a large label with the name of the film either printed or handwritten, a construction paper backing, and the name of the film or character handwritten on the front just below the mat opening. The studio matted the art and left the framing up to the gallery or new owner.

When the art was prepared by the Courvoisier staff [1940-46], they added an "Original WDP" monogram seal (shown above right) rubber-stamped at the lower right corner of the mat opening. Source: Courvoisier Galleries

The Courvoisier legacy

Courvoisier tested the market with prices ranging from as little as $5 for a simple one character framed piece up to $75 for multiple characters and original painted backgrounds. Within a year, galleries from New York to London had sold over 8000 Snow White cels. By early 1939, the program was expanded to include cels from other Disney films as well as the sale of backgrounds, animation drawings and storyboard sketches.

Today, animation pieces from the Golden Age are recognized not only as historically significant, but also as a form of fine art. These once "ephemeral" drawings and paintings are still with us because of the visionary efforts of Guthrie Courvoisier.

A light overview of the Courvoisier set-up

Video posted by ArtInsightsGallery.

See the Courvoisier "Gallery Series" in next post.


  1. I always wondered what "Courvoisier" meant; never knew it was a person!

  2. Wow...have you heard they are removing the Snow White ride from Walt Disneyworld? Tragic. Kori xoxo

  3. Dave-- I still don't know what he looked like. Even on the Courvoisier Gallery website, can't seem to find a photo of Guthrie Courvoisier.

    Kori-- Yep. I heard. It will be missed.

  4. Wonderful work on this blog - in fact a real treasure trove of golden age Disneyana. Every time I come here I learn something new.

    Many thanks Robert.

  5. Thanks Peter, I appreciate it. But speaking of treasure troves, your Cloud 109 is a virtual library of commandos, comics, and more. Kudos to you.