The French romantic composer Berlioz once said "The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck". In other words, artistic skills and diligence are not enough, you also need to be in the right place at the right time to become famous. Which Hugo Larsen was not.
Prisoners on the Moor, 1901
Owner: The State Prison, Horsens
Photo: Viborg Stiftsmuseum/Kurt Nielsen
But he was an unusually skilled painter, probably the most gifted Danish artist ever to work in the Danish West Indies (the present US Virgin Islands St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix). He was educated in Copenhagen as a house painter and graduated from the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen in 1899. He made his debut the same year at the finest art exhibition in Denmark, the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition, but remained virtually unnoticed for a couple of years.
In 1901 he made his breakthrough with the large painting "Prisoners Working on the Moor". In this painting, he managed to summarize a strong contemporary political movement to regain internally what had been lost externally in wars of the previous century. The most important part was the Moor Movement, working actively to cultivate the moors, at the time covering one third of the mainland Jutland. Another part was to resocialize prisoners in preparation of their release and future participation in the society. And here they are, hard working prisoners in a colony on the moors, using their physical strength in the interest of both their country and their future.
A few years later, his friend and teacher, professor Frants Henningsen, saw an opportunity to help Hugo Larsen get funding for a longer trip to the Danish West Indies where he stayed and worked between 1904 and 1907, with visits to Cuba, St Martin, USA and Mexico.
Nanny with Baby, St. Thomas 1905
Danish Maritime Museum
Photographer Kirsten A. Jappe
The political background for the trip was as follows: The colonies in the West Indies had lost their economical importance for Denmark and for some time negotiations with USA had been conducted with the objective of selling the islands. In the Danish parliament as well as in the public an animated debate took place, eventually resulting in a decision in 1902 not to sell. The decision was by no means unanimous and influential people subsequently made an effort to create a more positive opinion towards the colonies. Among these people was the Danish princess Marie who happened to study art with professor Frants Henningsen too. When Henningsen suggested to send out a young and promising artist to study the nature and people and bring back good paintings to stimulate the interest for the colonies, she accepted right away and persuaded a patron of art to pay for the ticket. The young and promising artist was Hugo Larsen.
The years in the West Indies were to become Hugo Larsen's happiest and most productive period. In a mixture of realism and impressionism he created quite a number of brilliant oil paintings and charcoal drawings. Although "Nanny and the child" is one of his masterpieces he usually painted less idyllic sceneries, describing people as he saw them: Exotic, working, dancing, chatting, arguing, relaxing. In addition he continued painting portraits for a living, mostly by people of the higher classes of course. But most of his production consisted of landscapes in oil and portraits of the local population in charcoal and lead. Many of his works from the West Indies are seemingly inspired by the simultaneous French impressionists, but he had never seen their works. He just painted his motives in much the same way.
Read more about Hugo Larsen's 3½ years in the Danish West Indies.
Hugo Larsen returned to Denmark in 1907, just to discover that the public and the administration had lost all interest in the colonies and - worse for him - had forgotten all about Hugo Larsen. His works were simply ignored by the public as well as by the connoisseurs. He most certainly had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Towards the end of World War I, the Danish West Indies attracted the strategic interests of USA and the islands were finally sold in 1917.
For a number of years after his return, Hugo Larsen continued to paint landscapes, but they never attracted much interest. After a while he ceased to participate in the major exhibitions and turned his back on the establishment. On the other hand his portraits were always in demand, making them his main source of living for the rest of his career and life.
In 1992, a controversial exhibition took place in Copenhagen, celebrating the diamond jubilee of the sale of the Danish West Indies. The exhibition entitled "The Danes in the West Indies" was sponsored by the Danish West Indian Society (www.dwis.dk). Hugo Larsen's works were given a central position in the exhibition, thus rehabilitating his name to some degree. The exhibition was a success, but also caused a controversy in the newspapers.
Few of Hugo Larsen's paintings are in museums, among them his magnum opus "Nanny and the Child" from 1905, owned by The Danish Maritime Museum (www.maritime-museum.dk). Thus, most of his works are privately owned, e.g. by a number of estate owners, not only in Denmark, but also in UK and Ireland which he visited in 1914. In order to partly compensate for the lack of publicly available works of Hugo Larsen, I have created a virtual gallery for him on these pages. In the gallery you can see a number of his works from the Danish West Indies, portraits, other paintings and sketches and drawings.
Hugo Larsen made a large number of sketches in the Danish West Indies. Not all the sketches made it to his completed works. He had a sharp eye for droll attitudes and sceneries. Below I have made an attempt to reproduce a number of characters from his sketch pad. You can almost hear them talk, can't you?
A closer biography of the 3½ years in the Danish West Indies
Hugo Valdemar Larsen was born 23 Sep 1875 in Copenhagen where he died 25 Dec
1950. He was the son of master house painter Sofus Vilhelm Larsen (1848-1919) and
Isidora Augusta Strip (1850-1939).
Hugo Larsen never married.
"Hugo Larsen - Dansk-Vestindiens uovertrufne maler", Xenius Rostock,
Copenhagen 1950 (in Danish)
"Weilbach - Dansk Kunstnerleksikon", published by Munksgaard-Rosinante, Copenhagen 1995 (in Danish)
"Kunstnere i tropesol" (booklet and catalogue for the exhibition "Danes in the West Indies"), article written by Lise Funder, Copenhagen 1992 (in Danish). The booklet is still for sale at the Danish West Indian Society: www.dwis.dk
 The exhibition was - just or unjust - accused of
racial discrimination. The polemics are described in an academic - although not
objective - article by Karen Olwig:
www.viaccess.net/~crucian/memory.htm. I think the controversy was partly
based on misunderstandings. But the polemics show that one should be careful not
to make an idyllic picture of a past that we - the Danish society - have turned
our back to. And there are many aspects of our colonial history that we have not
dealt with yet, including still remaining cultural and social problems that we
have created - or at least participated in creating.
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