(December 18, 2017) His holiday card designs -- like the backgrounds he painted for Disney animated features for more than 30 years -- sparkle with Midcentury Modern style and pizzazz. Ralph Hulett (1915-1974), who created the backgrounds for for almost every animated Walt Disney Studios feature from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Robin Hood (1973) was a noted California Scene painter whose colorful landscapes and cityscapes -- especially those that documented the postwar changes in Los Angeles and the region -- are widely collected. But in addition to his Disney duties and fine-art work, he also kept up another financially lucrative sideline: designing Christmas cards for several well-known card publishers.
A mini-exhibition of Hulett's original paintings for these cards is on display at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University, now through January 31, 2018. The museum, located at 167 N. Atchison Street in Orange, CA, is open Tuesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free to the public. Parking is free in front of the museum with a permit obtained inside. For more information, the public can call 714-516-5880 or visit www.hilbertmuseum.com.
Hulett was born in Kankakee, Illlinois, and came to California with his family as a teenager. He attended Glendale High School, where his prodigal talents in art were soon recognized, and was awarded a four-year scholarship to study at L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute, already becoming known as a training ground for Walt Disney Studios artists. His teachers at Chouinard included the now-renowned California Scene painters Millard Sheets, Phil Dike and Phil Paradise. Disney hired Hulett before he had graduated from Chouinard to work on the studio's first animated feature-length film, Snow White. After he graduated in 1938, he worked full-time for Disney, contributing watercolor backgrounds to such classics as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi and many more, on up through hits like Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood.
Throughout these decades, he was also burnishing his reputation as a fine-art painter, selling his work through L.A. galleries and exhibiting as far away as New York City. Several of his watercolors, and many of his oils depicting the changing areas of Los Angeles (especially the Bunker Hill region) reside in The Hilbert Collection.
But of particular seasonal interest are the holiday cards he designed In the 1950s for the Designers' Showcase and California Artists companies. The crisp, colorful designs almost jingle with holiday cheer: Hulett had a particular fondness for rural snowscapes populated by deer, rabbits and other forest creatures, as well as elegant Christmas cityscapes and cozy Americana villages with children playing in the snow. All are painted with a swift, sure hand, warmth and humor, and -- if you look closely -- a nostalgic resemblance to some of your favorite Disney features.