Gustaf Adolf Tenggren was a Swedish children's book illustrator and inspirational sketch artist at the Disney studio from 1936 to 1939. His illustrative style, heavily influenced by the work of John Bauer and Arthur Rackham, influenced the look of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and in particular, Pinocchio, though he received no credit for the latter.
Early Life and Education (1896-1916)
Tenggren was born in Magra, Sweden, on November 3, 1896, and spent his childhood with his grandfather Teng, as his father had immigrated to America. Teng was a decorative painter and woodcarver, and, acting as the boy's father, taught Tenggren how to paint and carve. In 1913, Tenggren received a scholarship to study painting at the art school of Valand in Gothenburg. This scholarship ended in 1916.
Career as an Illustrator (1917-1935)
Between 1917 and 1926, Tenggren illustrated Bland Tomtar och Troll (Among Elves and Trolls, an annual on Swedish folklore and fairy tales). During this time, in 1920, he moved to Cleveland. An exhibition of his work was held, and Tenggren moved to New York, where he illustrated twenty-two books between 1923 and 1939, as well as advertisements and magazine illustrations. In New York, Tenggren would meet other artists and writers in clubs on MacDougal Street, and in the resulting discussions, Tenggren was seen to be very vocal yet independent. He was also said to be an alcoholic. In 1926 he married a nurse named Malin Froberg.
Tenggren joined the Disney studio during the Depression in 1936 when Walt Disney instructed Ted Sears to find people who could "not only think up ideas but... carry them through and sell them to the people who have to do with the completion of the thing". Another reason for Disney's interest in Tenggren's work was his interest in European illustration, which began during a holiday with Roy O. Disney and their wives to England, France, Italy, Holland, and Switzerland in 1935.
At the studio, Tenggren created artwork for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (working with Albert Hurter and Ferdinand Horvath) and Pinocchio, as well as many shorts, including Little Hiawatha, The Old Mill, and The Ugly Duckling. His influence is perhaps most apparent in Pinocchio (for which he contributed visual ideas for every scene), particularly in scenes of the village streets and of Geppetto's Workshop, (the inspiration for both of which he is said to have taken from the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria. His art was also instrumental in defining the atmosphere of The Old Mill. His colleagues found him to be cooperative but anti-social, and perhaps arrogant in his skill.
His last assignment at the studio was for Bambi, for which he produced designs for highly detailed forest scenes. Each took days to paint and were considered to have been inappropriate for use as backgrounds, and the film ultimately used the style of fellow artist Tyrus Wong. Tenngren's departure from the studio may have been the result of receiving no credit for his work on Pinocchio and Bambi, his low salary or a feeling that his talents were not being put to their best use. It was also rumored that he had an affair with Milt Kahl's niece, who had got a summer job at the studio, and whom Tenggren had become accustomed to taking up to Yosemite (where he did many sketches for Bambi).
Return to Illustraton (1939-1970)
Following his departure from the Disney studio, Tenggren returned to illustration, working for Golden Books. Analysis of his work during this period has noted the influence of the "Disney Style", as well as increasing use of phallic shapes in Tenggren's illustrations. In 1944, Tenggren and his wife (who was said to be a very forgiving and understanding woman) made a trip to Maine, in search of solitude. They made the trip again in 1945, moving to a large old house in Ebenecock Harbour, Dogfish Head, which Tenggren stated reminded him of Sweden. He continued illustrating children's books and exhibiting his work until his death in Maine on April 9, 1970.
- John Canemaker, "Before the Animation Begins: The Life and Times of Disney inspirational Sketch Artists"