HOW ‘POCAHONTAS’ DIRECTOR MIKE GABRIEL RESCUED A LONG-LOST PAINTING BY THE LEGENDARY DISNEY ARTIST
By Cory Brooks
There are hidden gems, and then there are hidden gems. In 1999, on a trip to Santa Barbara, Disney director Mike Gabriel (The Rescuers Down Under, Pocahontas) unearthed a prize that many thought had been lost forever. And it was all due to the animator’s willingness to dig for buried treasure.
“I love rummaging through vintage and antique shops,” he says. “And somebody told me there were some old houses in a historic district off State Street called Brinkerhoff Avenue where I might find some vintage stuff.” At the time, the street had a small row of houses that were converted by their owners to sell wares to locals and tourists. As one might expect in a popular coastal city in Southern California, a wide variety of art and souvenirs were for sale.
“I walked into a house that was selling original art,” Gabriel says. “There were paintings of all kinds by various artists. I decided, ‘Why not?’ and stepped into a strange store that was more like a house, jammed full of artworks from floor to ceiling.”
As Gabriel wandered through the home, each room displaying artwork on nearly every inch of the walls, he navigated his way around stacks of original paintings from unknown artists. Among the pieces, many of which the shop owner had picked up at various flea markets, Gabriel found something he never expected to see in the wild: an original painting by Disney legend Mary Blair.
“I was stunned, shocked and incredulous to see it was a Mary Blair painting,” he says. “I had been a Walt Disney studio animator and director for 20 years by then, and I was a huge Mary Blair fan. I studied her works for endless hours at the studio.”
Because Gabriel was so familiar with Blair’s work, the painting’s size made him question its veracity. “It was too large for a Mary Blair. It couldn’t be an original,” he remembers thinking. “I quickly eyeballed the painting from up close, assessing the reflective quality of the paint. Was it all a uniform shine, like a print would have, or does each stroke have subtle variations in reflectivity that would suggest it was hand-painted? I could tell it was definitely an original, but how could this be a true Mary Blair when she typically painted very small, and this painting was large, at around three and a half feet wide?”
The shop owner had no information on the painting, nor any verification that the piece was an authentic work by Blair, but Gabriel took a chance on the artwork anyway. Knowing nothing about the painting’s provenance or why it was created, he purchased it and brought it home, determined to find out if it was really a Blair original. After contacting several experts, historians and colleagues from his career at The Walt Disney Company, Gabriel finally uncovered the painting’s origin, and what he learned astounded him.
As it turns out, Walt Disney personally commissioned Blair to paint the large artwork as a gift to Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda in the early 1940s. Miranda served as an ambassador to Walt Disney and his team of artists, including Blair, during their historic “Goodwill Tour” of Latin America in 1941. This trip proved to be invaluable to Walt Disney, as his team’s research during this period helped lead to two of his films: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
The painting, which Miranda displayed in her Beverly Hills home before her passing in 1955, is full of references to these two films, and it’s an incredible summary of that historic Disney trip. But until Gabriel’s chance discovery in that SoCal art shop, this magnificent piece of Disney history was long thought to have been lost.
December 8-11, 2023
Now the painting is coming to market for the first time as part of a Heritage auction celebrating the 100-year anniversary of The Walt Disney Company. The auction, which takes place December 8-11, contains 1,700 lots of Disney history, spanning its earliest years of Mickey Mouse shorts to more modern items from the popular Disney Renaissance period.
CORY BROOKS is Consignment Director of Animation and Anime Art at Heritage Auctions.