Tyrus Wong: Who was the remarkable Chinese-American artist behind Bambi’s watercolour backdrops?

Chinese-American artist and illustrator Tyrus Wong is being recognised for his illustrious career with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 108th birthday.

Mr Wong, who was born Wong Gen Yeo in the Guangdong Province, China on October 25 1910, immigrated to the United States with his father when he was nine – which marked the last time he would see his mother and sister.

Immediately upon his arrival in America, Mr Wong faced hardship as he was initially barred entry under the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted the number of Chinese immigrants that could enter the country.

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After finally settling in Los Angeles, California, Mr Wong began attending school. Shortly after, his teachers noticed his artistic capabilities.

His talent soon led to a scholarship opportunity at the Otis Art Institute, where he honed his skills as an artist.

Upon graduating, Mr Wong, who also became a talented animator, calligrapher, muralist, and set designer, set out on a impressive career in Hollywood during which he worked on and created some of Disney’s most iconic works, including Bambi.  

It was his watercolour paintings, inspired by the Song Dynasty, that inspired much of the backdrop for the 1942 animated film. However, his only credit came in the form of a background artist.

The same exclusion, likely caused first by the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and then lasting racism in the country, would follow Mr Wong throughout the rest of his lengthy career – overshadowing his work at both Disney and Warner Brothers Studios, where he worked for 26 years as a production assistant.

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Despite the lack of full recognition for his work, Mr Wong continued to follow his passions, later becoming a Hallmark greeting card designer and a talented kite-maker.

He also continued to paint – with many of his works displayed in exhibitions alongside Picasso and Matisse throughout his career.

But it wasn’t until 2001 that Mr Wong was finally acknowledged for influence on Bambi, when Disney bestowed upon him the honour of a Disney Legend – for outstanding contribution.

Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent Minds Mr Wong died in 2016 at the age of 106 – at which point his talents and contributions to the art world were finally widely recognised.