Virgin Islands’ Beauty Could Not Stop Denmark From Selling to U.S.

1905 oil on canvas of Gallows Bay, St. Croix. Painting courtesy of The Danish Maritime Museum, Kronborg.

A Virgin Islands resident only has to look out his or her window to realize the beauty these islands possess.

From 1904-1907, it was Hugo Larsen’s job to capture that beauty in his artwork, in an attempt to convince his home country of Denmark not to sell these beautiful islands—then known as the Danish West Indies—to the United States.


1906 Self-portrait of Hugo Larsen. Courtesy of The Øregaard Museum, Copenhagen.

There were several attempts by the U.S. to purchase the islands, beginning in the 1860s with William Seward, who also purchased Alaska, according to local historian Chuck Pishko.

Strategically Significant
The Danish West Indies, and in particular, the port of Charlotte Amalie, were important to the U.S., which saw the strategic military significance of the islands’ geographic location.

The Danish West Indies were losing value, according to a book titled “Hugo Larsen in the Danish West Indies 1904-1907,” compiled by the Øregaard Museum in Denmark, which houses many of Larsen’s works.

“After the emancipation of the slaves in 1848 and the decline in the cultivation of sugar cane, the colony lost its economic significance,” states the book. “By the turn of the century, in the opinion of a majority, all that remained were annual deficits and social problems.”

The necessity of Charlotte Amalie as a transit harbor waned as steamships—which did not require a stop on the way from Europe to Central America—became more popular.

“Although St. Thomas had the best natural harbor of the Caribbean, it was beginning to lose its importance as a transit harbor, because the steamships, unlike the sailing ships, did not require an intermediate station on the way to Central America,” according to the book. “Denmark had lost interest in the islands, but still could not allow herself to sell them.”

The only Danes who supported the Danish West Indies at that time were conservatives, who voted against a bill proposing the sale of the islands to the U.S., which was passed in the lower house of Parliament in 1902.

Reinvigorate the Islands
“This muddy decision became the impetus for a number of initiatives to reinvigorate the colony and create closer ties to the mother country,” states the museum’s book.

One of these initiatives involved a promotional drive by Larsen.

The idea to send Larsen to the islands was initiated by his professor, Frants Henningsen. The professor also taught Princess Marie, who along with her husband, Prince Valdemar, was the first Danish royal family to visit the Danish West Indies.

“Henningsen planted in her the idea that a promising young artist ought to be dispatched to describe the exotic colony in images that could have a positive impact on changing the opinion in Denmark,” according to the museum’s book.

On Jan. 19, 1904, Larsen boarded a ship and embarked on his journey to the Danish West Indies, which took approximately a month due to engine problems.

He was contracted to stay in the islands for one year, but ended up staying for three and a half years.

According to the museum’s book, Larsen’s painting style changed while he was in the islands.

Artistic Style Changed
“On the voyage, he drastically changed his style of painting,” it states. “Shedding the heavy academic cloak, he emerges as an impressionist, with bright and color-saturated paintings, full of life.”

Larsen fit in well with the locals, allowing him to make many observations.

“Hugo Larsen has an ability to socialize that becomes particularly useful for him in the Danish West Indies,” according to the book. “He is able to slip into any social setting without calling attention to himself. Everywhere, he is allowed to make his observations and do his sketches without disturbing his subjects.”

Although the islands were impoverished at the time, Larsen was able to capture the positive aspects of every day life.

“He enters into the existence of the local population and imperceptibly becomes a part of their daily life—and that life is not one of dejection, but of activities,” states the museum’s book. “They work and gossip, they dance and celebrate, they trade and they loaf; the young ones hold each other’s hand; women wash their children and scold the lazy men; the old people offer helpful advice to the young ones. Certainly, there is poverty and lack of progress, but it is not a dejected population that Hugo Larsen depicts.”

When Larsen boarded a ship destined for Copenhagen on Aug. 10, 1907, he was unaware that attitudes in his home country had changed.

Attitudes Toward Islands Changed
“He is not aware of the fact that the attitude in Copenhagen has totally changed during his absence,” states the book. “The early wave of interest that created the basis for his journey has vanished. Unquestionably, the colony is exotic, but it is cumbersome, and it costs money every year.”

The Danish government, and the Danish population, were no longer interested in dealing with the Danish West Indies by the time Larsen returned home.

Art critics seemed to feel the same way, according to this statement from a reviewer of Larsen’s paintings, found in the Øregaard Museum’s book: “Hugo Larsen, who has spent time in the West Indies, has not succeeded in personifying the unusual palette of these tropical locations.”

Danes made up their minds about the Danish West Indies by the time Larsen returned from his expedition.

“The general attitude towards the colony changed considerably during the years of Larsen’s absence,” states the book. “There is no longer a need or desire to see images of the islands. Indeed, people do not want to be confronted with the colony at all, and the sale to the U.S. does become a reality shortly thereafter.”

The U.S. finally acquired the islands in 1917 for $25 million in gold, according to Pishko.

St. John resident and “St. John Guidebook” owner Arne Jakobsen, who helped translate part of the Øregaard Museum’s book on Hugo Larsen into English, has been using Larsen’s paintings in the Guidebook for 15 years.

Larsen’s Paintings on St. John
“I used Hugo Larsen’s paintings in my Guidebook, both on St. John and St. Croix, to illustrate life in the old days,” he said. “They’re easy for my readers, and tourists, to relate to. Larsen did a painting of a post office in Christiansted, which still looks the same today.”

Jakobsen said he is surprised that there is not more interest in the Virgin Islands in Larsen’s paintings.

“What is very surprising to me is that there aren’t many West Indians who, up until now, have been interested in his art,” he said. “I think it’s a pity that the public here knows so little about Hugo Larsen, because he was showing people in a very, very beautiful way.”

Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately, for Virgin Islands residents today—Larsen’s depictions of these beautiful islands could not convince Denmark to keep them.

“For Hugo Larsen, it was necessary to cross the ocean in order to find his unique language,” states the museum’s book. “Regrettably, he returned home too late in the day.”