By Dr. Dante Beretta
A little over 100 years ago, a talented young Danish artist named Hugo Larsen, visited the Danish West Indies.
During his three year sojourn in the West Indies, he spent the majority of his time on the island of St. Thomas, creating many drawings and paintings.
My favorite Hugo Larsen is Nanny with Baby, painted in 1905.
Hugo Larsen’s Painting
The painting is a sensitive portrait of Postmaster Carstensen’s daughter, Ruth and her nanny.
In those days, it was common practice for families with financial means to have a nanny who was in charge of the child rearing.
In the painting, the nanny holds Ruth, who in turn holds her handmade doll on a second story gallery in an informal pose.
The figures are silhouetted and suffused with backlight from the midmorning sun, falling on the backdrop of Blackbeard’s Hill in Charlotte Amalia.
An Analysis of Nanny with Baby
“Despite the pronounced idyllic character of the image, it also represents the meeting of two worlds: white and black, master and subject.
Artistically, this contrast is emphasized by the balustrade separating the white, private home from the black community outside.
The balcony lies in the comfortable shade, the town in a merciless haze of heat – the black nanny with the white girl repeats the same motif.” ~ Curator Helle Brendstrup, Painting analysis at the Øregaard Museum
Assisting the Øregaard Museum
Hugo Larsen visited the islands from 1904 to 1907.
For the 100th anniversary, there was a major retrospective of his Danish West Indian work.
It took place in 2006 at the Øregaard Museum in Denmark.
I helped with the research on Hugo Larsen’s stay on St. Thomas, specifically with finding the exact locations of his paintings.
In 2004, I decided to see if I could find the location Mr. Larsen used to paint the Nanny with Baby.
While his brush strokes are loose and impressionistic, Hugo Larsen remains true to the scene even down to the nuances of the buildings and the outlines of hillsides.
After a ten minute stroll in Charlotte Amalie, I spied the Nanny with Baby house at 24B Nørre Gade, which is at the foot of Bluebeard’s Hill.
There happened to be a carpenter in the yard who had recently done restoration work on the house.
I showed him my poor copy of the painting and he thought it unlikely that the painting was done from this house.
Touring the Home
After some persuasion, he allowed me to visit the second-floor gallery, where we found not only the same background view but also the same exact gingerbread and balusters.
I took some photographs which were limited by my lens, telephone poles, and a flamboyant tree.
However, the image portrayed the gallery and background scenery to be very similar, if not identical to the painting created one hundred years ago.
I left my business card with the carpenter and the next day the owner of the home phoned me.
Her name was Rita Coll.
I was thrilled when she invited me for a visit.
Ms. Coll is a native of St. Thomas and was familiar with Hugo Larsen and the painting.
After our discussions, she realized that indeed, the Nanny with Baby painting must have been painted from her balcony!
She gave me a tour of the rest of the home and the outbuildings while enjoying a wonderful discussion on its history.
The home has been in existence since the early 1800’s and has been well kept and sensitively restored over the years.
There was one last twist to my visit to this house.
My father drove me to meet with Rita, but stayed in the car, his usual custom.
On the drive back home, he asked me, “Why were you visiting my old house?”
He then proceeded to tell me that in the 1930’s he lived in this very same house with his mother (Verna Dinzey) and grandmother (Teresa Martis).
He reminisced especially about the ghosts of conquistadors that he saw while he lived there.
I went simply to find the location of the painting and in the process met an interesting new friend, enjoyed a nice tour of an old property and learned surprising new information about my family history.
I wonder if it would be possible to learn the name of this unknown nanny.
I’m certain her present-day family would be interested in a glimpse into her everyday life as captured by a master painter, Hugo Larsen.
Maybe that will be the next research project I tackle.
Copyright © 2017 Dr. Dante Beretta. All Rights Reserved.
Maritime Museum of Denmark- This museum owns the “Nanny with Baby” painting and has given permission to use it.
Jan Tuxen- He has been largely responsible for a renewed interest in the paintings of his grand-uncle, Hugo Larsen, particularly the work from the Danish West Indies and has been instrumental in making it more accessible. http://www.tuxen.info/hugo_larsen/west_indies.htm
“Nanny med Barn” painting; https://billedarkiv.mfs.dk/fotoweb/archives/5001-Billedarkiv/archive/Arkiv-107/000029918.jpg.info
Self Portrait of Hugo Larsen, 1906. https://www.tuxen.info/hugo_larsen/fs20_eng.htm
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