Fairytale Females: Disney Princesses in Art and Culture

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney‘s death on the 15th December 2016 and the much-anticipated 2017 release of the new Beauty and the Beast film starring Emma Watson, take a look at how some Disney princesses were inspired, using images from art history. 


Test your knowledge:

1. Who is widely regarded as the most popular Disney princess?

2. Who was the very first Disney princess?

3. Who is the only princess that isn’t a teenager?

4. Who is the only princess that isn’t their film’s main character?

5. How many Disney princesses are there in total?

See bottom for answers.



Belle is the non-conforming daughter of an eccentric inventor; she longs to abandon her predictable village and find adventure. She is based on the heroine of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, but was written as a stronger female character.

Her character also draws inspiration from the women’s rights movement and she was purposefully conceived as a feminist to help differentiate from other Disney princesses who were often depicted as victims.


Lady Curzon’s evening dress, c.1903 (silk) / Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council, UK / Gift of Lady Alexandra Metcalfe and Lady Irene Ravensdale

Belle’s strength and love of reading was inspired by American actress Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Jo March in the film Little Women (1933). Animator James Baxter based the character’s graceful gait on those of impressionist Edgar Degas‘ ballerinas, while her European facial features were inspired by those of British actresses Vivien Leigh and Audrey Hepburn.


Dancers with yellow skirts (two dancers in yellow), c.1896 (pastel & charcoal on joined paper), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images

Several additional Hollywood actresses inspired Belle’s appearance, including Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Belle is the only Disney Princess to have her film nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.


Illustration from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, c.1900 (colour litho), Walter Crane (1845-1915) / Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet


Pocahontas was the first princess to be based on a verifiable historical figure; she was the Native American daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribal nations in Virginia. She was born circa 1596 and was originally called Matoaka, up until she was captured by the English and re-named Rebecca.


Resting (oil on canvas), Victor Gabriel Gilbert (1847-1933) / Private Collection / © Kelley Gallery, Pasadena, California

In a well-known historical anecdote, she is said to have saved the life of an Indian captive, Englishman John Smith, by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. Some historians have suggested that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue. She eventually married tobacco planter Thomas Rolfe and became something of a celebrity in English society as an example of the ‘civilised savage’.


John Rolfe and Pocahontas, 1845 (oil on canvas), James William Glass / Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, USA


Princess Aurora, also known as Sleeping Beauty, is the only daughter of King Stefan and Queen Leah. As revenge for not being invited to Aurora’s christening, an evil fairy named Maleficent curses the newborn princess, foretelling that she will die on her 16th birthday by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle. Determined to prevent this, three good fairies raise Aurora in seclusion, patiently awaiting her 16th birthday – the day the spell is to be broken by a kiss from her true love, Prince Philip.


Resting (oil on canvas), Victor Gabriel Gilbert (1847-1933) / Private Collection / © Kelley Gallery, Pasadena, California

Aurora is based on the princess in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, as well as the heroine in the Brothers Grimm‘s retelling of the story, Little Briar Rose. She only has eighteen lines of dialogue in her film and only appears for eighteen minutes. Funnily enough, even though she is listed in the top 5 Disney princesses of all time, her debut film was the only one that was a commercial failure.


Sleeping Beauty, Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902) / © Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, Cheshire, UK


Hua Mulan is a legendary woman warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) of China who was originally described in a ballad known as the Ballad of Mulan. In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army. She was known for practicing martial arts such as kung fu and for being skilled with a sword.


Chinese Stage Show, Arents Cigarette Cards (colour litho), American School, (19th century) / New York Public Library, USA

She fought for twelve years and gained high merit, but she refused any reward and retired to her hometown instead. The story of Hua Mulan is treated more as a legend than a historical person, and her name does not appear in Exemplary Women which is a compilation of biographies of women during the Northern Wei dynasty. Her legend is however, included in Yan Xiyuan’s One Hundred Beauties which is a compilation of various women in Chinese folklore.


Xian London, 2004 (w/c on paper), Allen Jones (b.1937) / Private Collection



Jasmine was originally going to be named Badroulbadour, after the princess who marries Aladdin in Arabian Nights.  She is the spirited Princess of Agrabah, who has grown weary of her life of palace confinement. She was initially conceived as a spoilt, materialistic princess, but the writers eventually re-wrote her as a strong woman who stands up to men and is determined to marry for love rather than what they own.


Flying Carpet, 1919-20 (oil on canvas), Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848-1926) / The Victor Vasnetsov Memorial Museum, Moscow, Russia


The Princess consulting the bird Bulbulhezar, illustration for ‘The Two Jealous Sisters’, from ‘The Arabian Nights’, 1939 (colour engraving), Roger Broders (1883-1953) / Private Collection

The studio decided to name her ‘Jasmine’ after the actress Jasmine Guy, plus it was also one of the most popular names of the decade. The idea of a disguised Jasmine escaping her palace in the middle of the night was inspired by the romantic comedy film Roman Holiday (1953), in which Princess Ann, portrayed by actress Audrey Hepburn, similarly flees the royal embassy in disguise in order to spend one day exploring Rome on her own.


Harlem Nights by Eddie Murphy with Jasmine Guy, 1989


Audrey Hepburn is Princess Ann in a scene from the film Roman Holiday / Mondadori Portfolio


Before Ariel was conceived, there had not been a new Disney princess for 30 long years. She was inspired by the title character of Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaid story, but was developed into a different personality for Disney’s animated film adaptation.


The Little Mermaid before a statue in the sea, illustration for a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, from ‘Album du Pere Castor’ published by Flammarion, 1937 (colour engraving), Ivan Jakovlevich Bilibin / Private Collection / Archives Charmet

She is spirited, rebellious and desperate for the chance to live her own life. She is the only princess to become a mother to her own child – Princess Melody. Ariel is also the Disney princess with the most licensed, themed merchandise.


Denmark. Copenhagen. The Little Mermaid. / Photo © Tarker




Cinderella, 1881 (oil on canvas), Millais, John Everett (1829-96) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images

Thousands of variants are known throughout the world of Cinderella’s story. The oldest documented version, called Ye Xian, comes from China and the oldest European version from Italy. The most popular version however was first published by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697 and later by the Brothers Grimm in their folk tale collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales.


‘Cinderella and the glass slipper’, illustration from ‘Les Contes de Perrault’, engraved by Louis Henri Breviere (1797-1869), published by J.Hetzel, 1862 (etching), Gustave Dore (after) / Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet

More than 400 voice actors auditioned for the role of Cinderella, but it eventually went to Ilene Woods, who didn’t even know she was auditioning for the part. It came to her by chance after she recorded a demo of some of the film’s iconic songs, such as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.


Pair of glass slippers, designed by Frederick Carder, Steuben Glass, 1920’s / Corning Museum of Glass, New York, USA

Cinderella’s actual shoe size is mentioned in subsequent films – it’s 4 1/2.




Illustration from ‘Le Theatre’ magazine, 1900s (colour litho), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection / © The Advertising Archives

Princess Merida of DunBroch is the 16-year old daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor, who rule their Scottish kingdom. She is one of the few Disney princesses to have siblings and the only one without a love interest. She is also the only princess to not have originated from a piece of literature or historical figure; she was created by Brenda Chapman who went on to be the first woman to receive the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Brave.


Miranda, 1916 (oil on canvas), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) / Private Collection / Photo © The Maas Gallery, London

Merida’s distinctive frizzy red hairdo is made up of 111,700 hairs that were generated from over 1500 individually sculpted models.



Elsa is loosely based on the title character of The Snow Queen, a Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. In the Disney film adaptation, she is introduced as the princess of the fictional Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle, heiress to the throne and the elder sister of Princess Anna.


The Seasons: Winter (detail), 1900 (colour litho), Alphonse Marie Mucha (1860-1939) / Mucha Trust

Elsa has the magical ability to create and manipulate ice and snow. Her character is usually regarded as a villain, however for Disney she was rewritten as a sympathetic, misunderstood figure. Her film, Frozen, is currently the highest-grossing animation of all time.


Illustration from ‘The Snow Queen’ in an edition of ‘Fairy Tales’ by Hans Christian Andersen 1920 (w/c on paper), Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951) / Private Collection



1. Cinderella. Elsa is second.

2. Often thought to be Snow White but actually the title goes to Persephone, who starred in a Disney short film three years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

3. Elsa – she is 21 years old. Snow White is the youngest, at 14.

4. Jasmine. She was also the first princess not to be mentioned in the title of her film.

5. There are currently 11 official princesses that are part of the franchise; Cinderella, Rapunzel, Belle, Aurora, Snow White, Tiana, Merida, Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Ariel, although Elsa, Anna and Moana are also expected to join the list.


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