The Hugo Larsen Biography

Danish West Indies 1904-07

Hugo Larsen Booklet for Sale

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"Hugo Larsen in the Danish West Indies 1904-07", 80 pages, semi-hard cover.
Publisher: Øregaard Museum, Denmark.
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Hugo Larsen's trip to Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) in the years from 1904 to 1907 became a remarkable climax in his artistic career. In addition, the trip had significant impact on the rest of his life.

As opposed to the general biography of Hugo Larsen, the present article will go into detail. The background for the trip will be described, a number of until now unpublished details about the trip itself will be mentioned. Most important is perhaps the description of Hugo Larsen's art during his stay in Danish West Indies, but in addition the impact that this trip had on the rest of Hugo Larsen's life will be covered.

The period of time covered by this article has my particular interest and the article will most likely be changed and amended quite often.

The Background

Hugo Larsen graduated from the Academy of Art in Copenhagen in 1899. In the years after he started his career only slowly, but managed to be commended for a number of brilliant paintings from Salling (Denmark), where he spent some time as a friend of the great Danish poet and novelist Jeppe Aakjær. The best example may be the large painting of the convicts breaking the moor at the prison Gedhus, but also the excellent picture of the interior of the kitchen at Gedhus should be mentioned, in particular because this painting points to the way Hugo larsen's art will evolve a few years later in the Danish West Indies.

Hugo Larsen was a child of Copenhagen. He didn't like to be away from the city for too long time. The city by itself may not have inspired him, but he was fond of its social life. On the other hand, the idea of a cultural trip must have been close to his mind. But where to? The roads to the European metropols - particularly Rome - had been paved by many footsteps of artists of the generations ahead of Hugo Larsen. But what about the Danish West Indies, exotic and problematic at the same time? Perhaps not the most obvious choice for an artist with strong bindings to Copenhagen. But he may have had a background that has not yet been known.

The thing is that Hugo Larsen's father, master painter Sofus Larsen, did not know his parents. But a persistent, though unconfirmed, rumour says that a young count Schimmelmann had been too kind to a maiden of the manor, miss Larsen. Hugo Larsen knew this rumour which may have given him a special interest in the family Schimmelmann whose most prominent member was Ernst Schimmelmann (1747-1831). Ernst Schimmelmann was a human statesman and philanthropist. He had large possessions in the Danish West Indies and he brought about the cession of the slave trade in Guinea and the Danish West Indies. We do not know whether the rumour inspired Hugo Larsen to make a closer study of the Danish West Indies, but it is a possibility.

More important though was the political background which made it possible for Hugo Larsen to get his trip financed. The family Larsen was by no means wealthy. Emphasis was made on the sons' education, but after that they had to take care of themselves. That's why the very narrow decision not to sell the Danish West Indies to U.S.A. in 1902 came to rescue. By the time the Danish parliament had two chambers. The 'Folketing' made the laws, but laws were only valid if approved by a majority in the 'Landsting'. A vast majority in the 'Folketing' agreed to the law, but in the 'Landsting' there was a strong, mainly conservative movement towards the sale. The final vote in the 'Landsting' was even, 16 votes for the law and 16 against. For the conservative circles this was a situation calling for a particular effort to tie up the colonies to the mainland. Perhaps the strongest manifestation of this movement was the inauguration of the Danish West Indian Company by the East Asiatic Company and the building of the three steam ships S/S St. Croix, S/S St. Jan and S/S St. Thomas to boost the trade between Denmark and the colonies. But even in a smaller scale there was a willingness to support activities that could increase the interest in the colonies. And Hugo Larsen profited from this momentum.

Then - like now - the professors had a strong sense for finding sources for their preferred candidates' further development. Professor Frants Henningsen on the Academy of Art was no exception, and he had the right connections in high society. Among his students was a princess Marie, married to prince Valdemar, the youngest son of king Christian IX ("Europe's Father in Law"). Prince Valdemar was the first member of the royal family ever to visit Danish West Indies in 1876, and the couple maintained close connections to the colonies. Frants Henningsen suggested to princess Marie that a young promising artist be sent to the islands to describe the exotic colony and its population in pictures to be sent back home. Princess Marie agreed to the idea and persuaded the well-known factory owner and patron of art Holger Petersen to pay for Hugo Larsen's trip.


The Trip

January 1904 was a busy month for Hugo Larsen. For the most important exhibition of art in Denmark, the spring exhibition of Charlottenborg, he was completing a monumental painting of the sculptor Anders Bundgaard working on sculptures for the Fountain of Gefion. And he had to pack for the travel of his life. He managed to do both and on the 19th he sailed from Copenhagen on board the newly built S/S St. Croix on its maiden voyage.

Portrait of Wappe Dalmark

Christian "Wappe" Dalmark, 1904.

The 'contract' with the patron was for Hugo Larsen to stay in the colonies for at least one year to bring back exotic paintings to Denmark. Little would he know that the voyage was going to last more than three and a half year, that it would become the happiest period of his life, that his art would reach its climax during this period and that it would have fatal consequences for his future career.

The trip from Copenhagen to St. Thomas lasted nearly four weeks, but he had good company by the ship doctor Christian 'Wappe' Dalmark who had artistic skills too. The two developed a long lasting friendship which they maintained after they both returned to Denmark.

On 14 February 1904 S/S St. Croix arrives with a few days' delay to St. Thomas. The local newspaper 'The Bulletin' welcomes the ship in a large article, but cannot refrain from ironically remarking that "We cannot help thinking [...] how singular it seems that almost every nation's flag, save Denmark's, has during all the years and up to now made use advantageously of St. Thomas' renowned harbor."

Hugo Larsen sets up his quarter in Charlotte Amalie and stays most of the year on St. Thomas. In November he takes a short trip to St. Croix, looking around for a few days. On this trip he sails on board the already then more than 100 years old schooner Vigilant which had many years earlier written history by being involved in a successful fight with a pirate ship. Now it served as a peaceful mail ship on the route between St. Thomas and St. Croix. The trip would take some 5-7 hours under normal wind conditions, but could last until infinity without wind. Although supplemented for a number of years by the motor schooner Viking, Vigilant continued to serve the route until 1928 where it sunk in Gallows bay during one of the many hurricanes that ravage the Carribean.

On 15 July 1905 Hugo Larsen again sails to St. Croix, this time on a longer trip lasting until some time in 1906.

In April-May 1907 he has three ultra short trips to St. Croix. Even though these trips were on board the faster Viking, it seems very unusual to me that a poor artist would take this trip three times during a fortnight, two even overnight trips. These trips are a mystery for me and no paintings signed on St. Croix in 1907 are known. Of course I have a romantic hypothesis, but I better keep it to myself until I have found some evidence.

Hugo Larsen's stay in Danish West Indies ended on 10 August 1907 when he left Charlotte Amalie on board S/S St. Jan destined for Copenhagen. This is well documented in the local press. I stress this information because all sources until now have said that Hugo Larsen's trip lasted from 1904 until 1908. I have long had a suspicion that this could not be true, because Hugo Larsen's younger brother Otto Bjørneboe married on 1 January 1908 at which occasion Hugo Larsen gave him as a gift a pastel of their parents. In my mind, it would not be Hugo Larsen's habit to portray his parents without having seen them for almost four years. I was also surprised that Hugo Larsen exhibited a large number of paintings in a major exhibition in Copenhagen during the fall of 1907. And here is the proof: Hugo Larsen returned in August 1907.


The Art

Hugo Larsen's art reached its climax in Danish West Indies. It is fairly obvious for us spectators and he knew it himself when interviewed for a book many years later. Never before or since did he paint and draw with such an intensity and empathy as he did in these years. One masterpiece followed the other. He fulfilled to a high degree the 'contract' with his patron. Shame that his works were not appreciated at that time.

What was it then that particularly characterized his works of this period? No doubt one can pinpoint many things, but two main characteristics come to my mind: The oil paintings are very impressionistic, and particularly in the pencil and charcoal drawings he describes the local population with great realism and a brilliant eye for characteristic and droll details in everyday situations and in the gestics of the portrayed.

The impressionistic element was not part of Hugo Larsen's educational background. At the Academy of Art he had been to an academic and realistic school under professor Frants Henningsen without connection with the painters of Skagen (e.g. P.S. Krøyer, Anna and Michael Ancher and others). In the book written about Hugo Larsen in 1950 he states that he did not even at the time know the French impressionism, which was started by a Danish citizen Camille Pisarro, born and grown up in St. Thomas. But it is naive to believe that he did not know the means of the impressionism and its impact on the spectators. He cannot have escaped knowing that. He just had not been inspired by the impressionism before. Now he was.

What inspired him then? I guess it must have been the light. The impressionistic element is clearly visible in a portrait of his friend, the ship doctor Wappe Dalmark. There is some evidence that this portrait must have been painted during the sea journey. The bright mood and its playing with light and shadow distinguishes this portrait from its predecessors and shows that the tropical light must have inspired Hugo Larsen's way of painting.

Hugo Larsen's painting of Nanna and the Child

Nanna with the Child, St. Thomas 1905
Danish Maritime Museum

The most famous of Hugo Larsen's paintings - perhaps the only one which is really famous - is the description of postmaster Carstensen's daughter Ruth in the arms of her nanny. The painting has been made on the terrace around postmaster Carstensen's house on Frederiksberg (now Bluebeard's Hill) with another inhabited hill in the background ending in Skytsborg (now Blackbeard's Castle) on top. If any style this is impressionism. Hugo Larsen achieves an almost chocking three-dimensional effect in the picture by emphasizing the contrast between the shadow on the terrace and the sharp, flickering tropical light on the hill in the background.

Is Hugo Larsen's impressionistic style in this period so important then? A matter of taste perhaps, but to me the flickering tropical light, the sharp contrast between sunshine and shadow and the big contrast between daylight and the darkness of night are particularly well suited to be described in an impressionistic style. And here Hugo Larsen takes a unique position in that he was the only important Danish artist of the time to use this technique in the Danish West Indies. What about Camille Pisarro, you may ask. Well, Pisarro invented the Frencch Impressionism, and he was born and brought up on St. Thomas., but in his younger years the style was quite different. You cannot describe Pisarro as an impressionist before he moved to France, and he never returned to the islands after that. My wife and I visited the islands in June 2003 and in a gallery in Grand Hotel, St. Thomas, we saw two beautyful paintings next to each other, one by Hugo Larsen describing a married couple and a donkey, the other by Camille Pisarro showing a woman with a jar on her head. Both very beauutiful, but while Hugo Larsen's painting was filled with shimmering light and impressions rather than detail, Pisarro's was calm and static, almost like a scrap in comparison.

A scenery from Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

Scenery from a street in St. Thomas

The second main element in Hugo Larsen's art from this period is his empathetic description of the local population. He has arrived to a stgnating society. Despite all good will after the vote in the Danish parliament against the sale, the Danish state does next to nothing for the economy and development of the islands, even though the necessary reforms and action plans are well documented. Poverty, unemployment and despondency are prevalent. People are waiting for something to happen. But nothing happens.

Based on Hugo Larsen's educational background one might expect him to turn into social realism in his descriptions of the population. But no, he may be a realist in the artistic sense, but not a social realist. He draws everyday situations in town, he depicts characteristic postures, and he has a sharp eye for peculiar gestics. Very few artists depict the local population in Danish West Indies at the time. But Hugo Larsen does, moreover in a realistic and at times teasing manner. His pictures of the local population are usually drawings, seldomly paintings. I guess the poor artist had to take into account that few people if any would be interested in buying art depicting the local population. A quite understandable viewpoint at the time, but I have severe problems understanding that these brilliant and rare drawings are not known and in demand on the islands today. To me this is a depressing sign of a population that has lost the interest in its own history.


The Consequences

The long stay in the West Indies had dramatic influence on Hugo Larsen's continued career. And unfortunately not only in a positive sense.

When he returned in the late summer of 1907 he brought with him a treasure of west indian pictures. The first couple of years of his stay he had totally ignored the exhibitions, critics and audience back home. In the spring of 1907 he had sent a single painting ("From a Rumshop") to the famous spring exhibition of Charlottenborg. Now he returned himself with all the exotic treasures, more than ready to exhibit. On the artists' fall exhibition at Charlottenborg he exhibited 35 of his best works from the Danish West Indies. The exhibition of his life, one would imagine. But no. What should have been an artistic triumph, became a quiet fiasco. The political climate had changed drastically and all the interest in the West Indies had gone. Hugo Larsen's motives were simply no longer interesting. And the audience had forgotten the young painter who had been away for so long time.

What a shock for Hugo Larsen. Adding to the disaster was the fact that he had now exhibited a number of the best paintings which could not subsequently be exhibited at the spring exhibition of Charlottenborg. In fact, the painting from the rumshop on St. Croix remained the only of his west indian paintings ever to be exhibited in Denmarks finest exhibition.

Did he suffer from a depression after this? We do not have his word for it, because he did not write much if anything during his lifetime. Judging from his art in the subsequent years though he must have been depressed for quite some time. A period that might rightfully be named "The Period of the Gloomy Portraits". Not bad paintings at all, and several found their way to the finest exhibitions, but they are sombre and gone is the particular inspiration that the tropical light gave Hugo Larsen and which characterized his West Indian motives.

After a failed exertion of a separate exhibition in Copenhagen in 1913 and after breaking with Charlottenborg in 1915-16 Hugo Larsen withdrew from the established art world in Copenhagen and adapted to a completely different life in what has been called "The Manor Period", but that's a completely dfferent story.


See also:

The West Indian Gallery

The Hugo Larsen Biography

The society St. Croix Friends of Denmark has recently embarked on an exciting project that will end up in a documentary showing the daily life in the Danish West Indies as seen through Hugo Larsen's art. Who knows, I may finally be proven wrong in my pessimistic view on Hugo Larsen's reputation on the islands :-) Read more ..