In the Footsteps of Hugo Larsen

Then and Now

Is it possible to catch today the motives that Hugo Larsen painted some 100 years ago?

Of course not. Many of the places where he painted have changed beyond recognition today. And even a clever photographer cannot catch the light, the athmosphere and the composition of a great painter. Not to speak of an amateur like me.

But it's definitely fun to try :-) And in many cases it is possible to identify his motives. He was a realist, painting what he saw, never arranging a motive. Inspired by Arne Jakobsen's similar attempt in the St. Croix Guidebook 2003, I have tried to hunt up some of the places where Hugo Larsen made his paintings and drawings. Dante Beretta and Arne Jakobsen have given me valuable help by pointing out several exact spots and by supplying some of the photos below.

Hugo Larsen's drawings and paintings tell their own story. But adding a photo from our time sometimes also adds an interesting perspective. Judge for yourself.

Hugo Larsen's painting of Gallows Bay, St. Croix

Hugo Larsen: Gallows Bay, appr. 1905-06

Photo of Gallows Bay, St. Croix

June 2003


Gallows Bay by Christiansted on St. Croix is still a brilliant motive, and so unchanged that you definitely sense being in the footsteps of Hugo Larsen. The beach is not flat any longer though. The city has come to Gallows Bay, and that does change the perspective a bit.

The ship wreck in the bay is probably from one of the many hurricanes that still ravage the Caribbean islands, perhaps even the one in 1989 named Hugo :-) The wreck made me think of the proud schooner Vigilant that was built around 1780 and participated in a number of lucky battles in its younger days. In Hugo Larsen's years in the Danish West Indies, Vigilant sailed as mail and passenger boat between St. Thomas and St. Croix. Hugo Larsen sailed on Vigilant at least once. In 1928 St. Croix was attacked by yet another hurricane and even though Vigilant lay hove-to in Gallow's Bay, it was not able to escape its destiny and now it rests at the bottom of the bay.

Hugo Larsen: St. Thomas By og Havn, 1911

Hugo Larsen: St. Thomas City and Harbour, 1911

Foto fra Mafolie Hill over Charlotte Amalie samt Hassel og Water Island, juni 2003

June 2003


Hugo Larsen's colour lithography to the left (for use in Danish schools) is one of the rare cases where he painted after his memory. This work was made appr. four years after his return to Denmark. Besides his memory it is likely that he has had support from a contemporary photo taken by Fred Riise from appr. the same place in the Mafolie area, but without Hugo Larsen's foreground (which I didn't find either :-)

Hugo Larsen's view of St. Thomas City and Harbour

Hugo Larsen: View of St. Thomas City and Harbour

Photo from the Mafolie Area, St. Thomas

April 2005
(Photographer: Dante Beretta)


Dante Beretta who put his photo at the website's disposal, writes:

While I was able to identify Hugo Larsen's viewpoint of Charlotte Amalie by looking at the hills relation to each other, it was difficult to photograph as there were trees and new construction blocking this view. This photograph from the Mafolie area approximates the scene.

When Hugo Larsen visited the Estate Mafolie area on St. Thomas, he likely visited by donkey to help him carry his art equipment up the steep dirt road leading to the hills above Charlotte Amalie. He found a sparsely populated area mainly devoted to small farms. The view he chose of the harbor looks to the south and west with Hassell Island and Water Island in the background. In the mid ground, one can identify what we call ‘Denmark Hill’. The hill has this name locally because the great house of estate Cathineberg, which is atop this hill, served for many years as the Danish Consulate. To the right of this, is the downtown area with the warehouses on Dronningensgade. Mr. Larsen painted his view in the late afternoon- one can tell this as he is faithful to the scene, especially in the way he depicts the waning sun's play of light and shadow upon the hills.

If you look closely at Dante Beretta's photo here and compare it to to the colour lithography just above, you may notice that Dante's viewpoint is perhaps a bit closer than mine.

Hugo Larsen's painting of Nanny and the Child, St. Thomas, 1905

Hugo Larsen: Nanny and the Child, 1905

Photo of Blackbeard's Hill viewed from Bluebeard's Hill, St. Thomas

January 2004
(Photographer: Dante Beretta)


Things are changing in the course of a century, but postmaster Carstensen's house still exists on Frederiksberg (Bluebeard's Hill). His daughter Ruth and her nanny were not at home when Dante Beretta visited, though. The background - mainly consisting of Government Hill and Blackbeard's Hill with the tower Skytsborg (Blackbeard's Castle) on top - has stayed much the same.

Hugo Larsen: The Post Office Square, St. Thomas, 1906

Hugo Larsen: The Post Office Square, 1906

Photo of the Post Office Square, St. Thomas

January 2006
(Photographer: Dante Beretta)


Here Hugo Larsen has invited us to watch the life and doings in the very heart of Charlotte Amalie where Dronningensgade (Main Street) meets the Post Office Square. Some are working, others resting in the shade of the mahogany trees, while a woman dressed in her finest clothing is telling the city: "Here I am!". This motif was selected as the icon of the Hugo Larsen exhibition at Øregaard Museum.

One hundred years later, the city architecture has remained much the same and a number of buildings are still recognizable. Even a couple of mahogany trees are still there. But the life of the city has changed dramatically. As long as there are cruise ferries in the harbour, this is the main shopping area, completely crowded with tourists and taxies. But on a sleepy Sunday afternoon like here, the shops are hermetically closed and the street emptied apart from a couple of hotel guests. It's either or.

Hugo Larsen: Baggade, Charlotte Amalie

Hugo Larsen: Baggade, Charlotte Amalie, 1905

Photo of Back Street, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, June 2003

June 2003


Not even the proud women in Baggade (Compagnie Stræde, now Back Street) were there when we visited. But if for a moment you dream that the cars and the cable mess were gone, you can still sense a bit of the mood as it was a century ago.

Hugo Larsen: Painting of the avenue of King palms at Constitution Hill, St. Croix

Hugo Larsen: Constitution Hill, St. Croix, appr. 1905-06

Photo af Constitution Hill, St. Croix, appr. 1899

Constitution Hill, photography appr. 1899


The heading 'Then and Now' does not seem very appropriate for this pair of pictures. But the thing is that the whole avenue of king palms at Constitution Hill were broken like matches during a hurricane - apparently a few years after Hugo Larsen left the island. After the hurricane the rest of the palms were removed and no new palms were planted. Thus the motive above cannot be depicted today. I was tempted to show the beautiful palm avenue between the Centerline Road and St. Croix University, but that's a different story.

Hugo Larsen: Painting of the interior of a sugar factory, St. Croix 1905

Hugo Larsen: From a Sugar Factory, St. Croix, 1905

Foto af ruinen af en sukkerfabrik, juni 2003

Ruin of a sugar factory, June 2003


This too is a sad story - or rather a case of lost history. In the years after 1800 "When sugar was king", there were several hundred sugar factories on St. Croix. In Hugo Larsen's time considerably less, but today not one of these sugar factories has been preserved. The hurricanes have lifted off the roofs, part of the materials has probably been reused, and the ravages of time have taken the rest. The ruins are all over the island, some partially preserved like the one above, most of them reduced to traces in the landscape though.

Sugar production was slave work, and the sugar was the reason behind the Danes' bestial caption, transportation and exploitation of the slaves. Not exactly a glorious history to remember. No more glorious was our withdrawal from the islands when the production was no longer profitable. The Americans who came after us don't seem to take much interest in a history that is not theirs. And the local population apparently has little interest in preserving the visible memories of the horrible work conditions of their ancestors. There are outstanding exceptions - most notably St. Croix Landmarks Society which uses its limited means to preserve what's possible. But the general impression is that the traces of the past are allowed to disappear. And it is horrible to see just how fast they disappear in the local climate.

I wonder if the Danes, the Americans and the local population won't some day regret that we let this happen?

"Turn your back to your history and you won't see it when it hits you"

Hugo Larsen: From Lundeborg Harbour 1921

Hugo Larsen: Lundeborg Harbour, 1921

Foto fra Lundeborg, May 2004

Lundeborg Harbour, May 2004


Hugo Larsen socialized with all classes in the Danish society, from the royal family to fishermen. He was a dear and frequent guest at the castle Hesselagergaard, but used a lot of time during his visits to socialize and paint in Lundeborg Harbour in the vicinity.

The idyllic fishing hamlet looks as if it has always been there. But the harbour was not built until 1861 and a number of the beautiful houses in the village are originally from other cities where they were torn down and subsequently rebuilt in Lundeborg during the 1860's. But as you can see, even the perfect idyll can easily be spoiled.