Fairytale Females: Disney Princesses in Art and Culture – bridgeman blog (2024)

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney‘s death on the 15th December 2016and 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 ofJeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, but was written as a stronger female character.

Hercharacter 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 calledMatoaka, 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 Mulanis 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.

Fairytale Females: Disney Princesses in Art and Culture – bridgeman blog (8)

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 initiallyconceived 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 escapingher 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 fleesthe 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 Arielwas conceived, there had not been a new Disney princess for 30 long years. Shewas inspired by the title character of Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Little Mermaidstory, but was developed into a different personality for Disney’sanimated 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 1697and 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 frizzyred 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 ofThe Snow Queen, a Danish fairytale byHans Christian Andersen. In the Disney film adaptation, she is introduced as the princess of the fictional Scandinaviankingdom of Arendelle, heiress to the throne and the elder sister ofPrincess 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.

Fairytale Females: Disney Princesses in Art and Culture – bridgeman blog (2024)


Is there a Mexican Disney Princess? ›

Yes, there is a Mexican Disney princess, and her name is Elena of Avalor.

What is Rapunzel's ethnicity? ›

Snow White and Rapunzel are German. Cinderella, Aurora, and Belle are French. Ariel is Danish. Merida is Scottish.

What ethnicity is each Disney Princess? ›

Snow White and Rapunzel are German, Belle, Cinderella, and Aurora are French, Anna and Elsa are Norwegian, Mulan is Chinese, Tiana is American, Elena is Spanish, Pocahontas is Native American, Moana is a Pacific Islander, Jasmine is Middle Eastern or possibly Indian, Ariel is originally Danish (in her book) but ...

Is there a Cuban Disney Princess? ›

Elena de Avalor is Disney's first Latina princess.

What race is Jasmine? ›

Humans or modern humans are the most common and widespread species of primate, and the last surviving species of the genus hom*o. They are great apes characterized by their hairlessness, bipedalism, and high intelligence.

What race is Ariel supposed to be? ›

As Ariel is half fish, she cannot be categorized by our ethnicities and races. The animated “l*ttle Mermaid” movie only portrayed her with light skin and red hair because that was the American interpretation at the time.

Which Disney princess is African? ›

Tiana is notable for being Disney's first black princess.

What country is Ariel from? ›

Originating from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, Ariel's aquatic escapades unfold in the waters surrounding Denmark. A visit to Denmark's capital city, Copenhagen is like stepping into the pages of the story, with the iconic Little Mermaid statue serving as a cherished homage to the character's Danish roots.

Who is the oldest princess in Disney? ›

However, if we consider the chronological order of the Princesses, Snow White is technically considered the oldest, since she debuted first, and debuted in 1937.

What do the 7 Dwarfs symbolize? ›

The seven dwarfs represent Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Light, Shadow, and Magic, although the 'Magic' dwarf is essentially a spirit that just inhabits Snow and enhances her power rather than appearing on its own, with the others appearing in some form to represent their element.

Who is the youngest Disney Princess? ›

Snow White is only 14 years old, making her the youngest. Jasmine, who is supposed to be 15, is the second youngest. Cinderella and Tiana are the oldest, both 19 years old.

Are there any Mexican Disney characters? ›

You know Elena of Avalor — are you still as pumped as we are about the first Latina princess?! — and are excited about the all-Latinx cast of Coco, but do you know Emperor Kuzco, Harley Diaz, and Cruz Ramirez?

Is there a Latina princess movie? ›

Academy Award-winner Ariana DeBose will portray the first Afro-Latina princess. The trailer for Disney's latest animation film, Wish, is here, and we're already in love with the leading princess, voiced by West Side Story Academy Award-winning actress Ariana DeBose.

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