A rare, 19th -century painting by Danish artist Th. Jessen (Niels Christian Theordor Jessen) was officially unveiled at the Fort Frederik Museum on Wednesday, December 23, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.
Only two of Jessen’s paintings from his years in the Virgin Islands are known to exist: an oil painting in the permanent collection of the Danish National Museum, depicting the sugarworks at Estate Golden Rock in the foreground, with the town of Christiansted in the distance, that painting granted to the museum in 1966 by Denmark’s esteemed Hagemann family that once owned all the plantations along the Frederiksted coastline, stretching from Estate Smithfield to Estate Punch, in addition to Estate La Grande Princesse in Christiansted; and the painting that was unveiled at the Fort Frederik Museum, thereby availing that work for public viewing for the first time in its 131-year-long history.
Titled “Kristiansted, St. Croix, gul Luft efter Krakatoa Udbreddet” (“Yellow Air over Christiansted, St. Croix after the Krakatoa Eruption”) and dated 1884, the oil-on-canvas painting depicts the yellow-hued sky over St. Croix, the result of the August 1883 volcanic eruption on Krakatoa, Java (present-day Indonesia), located some 11,400 miles away from the Virgin Islands. The Danish Golden Age-style coastal scene painting shows the historic town of Christiansted in the distance as viewed from the shoreline at Estate Golden Rock. The harbor master’s mansion on Protestant Cay is visible; Fort Christiansvaern (in its historic yellow color) stands watch over the tranquil harbor; what appears to be the belfry of the St. John’s Anglican Church stands tall amidst the town’s many buildings extending from the fort and continuing westward to the outskirts of the town at Estate Contentment, just beyond the Moravian church. But featured prominently in the foreground of the meticulously detailed painting is the island’s lush, tropical, then-still-virgin shoreline, teeming with flora and a few depictions of fauna: tall, elegant coconut palms, their fronds swaying in the wind; sea grape trees, their amber-colored young leaves reflecting upon the mirror-like, silvery rendering of the Caribbean Sea; in the mid-ground of the painting, in the vicinity of Estate Richmond, is a man dressed in all white atop his white steed, the rider presumably an overseer surveying the plantation; aloft is a “gahlin,” colloquial for the island’s ubiquitous white egrets; and above all, a yellow-gray firmament, the result of the catastrophic natural disaster that had occurred months earlier on the other side of the world. The 28.5 cm X 45 cm painting (excluding its 19th -century gold-leaf frame) is a feast for the eyes, with minute details, à la Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), and the elegant painterly reserve of the early Danish West Indies landscapes and coastal scenes of St. Thomas-born Impressionist master Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and fellow Danish artists Fritz Melbye (1826-1869) and Carl Bille (1815-1898), who journeyed to the islands during the Danish colonial era to paint their idyllic environs.
For over a half-century—since the acquisition of the Hagemann-donated painting by the Danish National Museum—the signature “Th. Jessen” had befuddled Danish art historians and researchers, museums, and auction houses. Despite the obvious classical training and mastery of the painter, no “Th. Jessen” appears in Weilbachs Kunstnerleksikon, the biological dictionary of Danish painters and architects—not for lack of talent, but on account of Jessen’s apparent preference for officially listing his profession as “chemist,” not “artist.” And no mention was made of the artist in the various books that have been written over the years on the subject of Danish artists who journeyed to the Danish “sugar islands” for inspiration and to capture on canvas the Danish presence in its far-flung isles.
It would not be until September 14, 2015, on the birthday of the painting’s current owner, that a serendipitous breakthrough finally occurred: Danish researcher Klaus Dahl emailed Virgin Islands-born art collector Wayne A.G. James with the news, “In all haste I send you the following: ‘Niels Christian Theodor Jessen, f. 24/9 1847, cand. phil. 1880 inspecteur ved St. Croix Fællessukkerkogerier’. Could this be him?….”
“I knew immediately that we had found our man,” Wayne James said. “Everything fit perfectly: the signature, the name, the date of the painting, the fact that Jessen was employed at Estate Golden Rock, and the point of view of the painting. It was a match made in paradise,” James said. “Such finds, after so much searching for so many years, are exhilarating. They make this work worth all the work.”
Since the September 14, 2015 revelations, additional details of Jessen’s mysterious life have emerged. A book on the genealogical history of the Jessen family, titled Meddelelser om Slægten Jessen, compiled by the artist during his sojourn in the islands and published in Copenhagen in 1885, is a part of the holdings at The Royal [Danish] Library. The book’s introduction is signed, “Golden Rock, St. Croix, den 1. Januar 1885 Th. J.” An October 15, 1885 Danish West Indies passenger list shows a “Theodor Jessen” departing the colony, en route to “Portorico.” (And Jessen does not appear in the 1890 Danish West Indies Census). Then in July of 1891, a “foreigner” chemist by the name of “Theodore Jessen,” single, age 43 (the age Jessen would have been in July of 1891), is listed as a passenger on board the vessel Medway, leaving the island of Barbados en route to Plymouth/Southampton, England, arriving July 16/17, 1891. Then, finally, there is a present-day Family Tree record of a Niels Christian Theodor Jessen, born in Denmark in 1848 (sic), living in the State of Utah and married to a Danish-born Diantha Brodersen.
“The research is unfolding rapidly, but part of the difficulty of tracking Jessen derives from the fact that he did not always use his full name. He seems to have preferred being identified by his second middle name, Theodor,” James said. “Rarely did he use his full name. And even then, he tended to use initials and/or abbreviations for all his given names and sometimes even for his surname. Researchers in Denmark and at the St. Croix Landmarks Society are painstakingly combing through the archives to uncover what else exists on the artist. What is already established, however, is that based on Jessen’s surviving paintings, his paintings of the Danish West Indies rank amongst the absolute finest of the era; and—ironically—what is also irrefutable is that Niels Christian Theodor Jessen’s enduring legacy to Danish and U.S. Virgin Islands history did not come as the result of his conventional, predictable, respectable vocation as a chemist in the sugarcane industry, but as a result of his precarious avocation as an artist in the enchanting Danish West Indies,” James said.
The painting will remain on public display at the Fort Frederik Museum until further notice. “Very few Virgin Islanders have ever seen a painting of the Virgin Islands dating from the 19th century. Few such paintings of the caliber of Jessen’s were ever created; and even fewer have survived the ravages of time. The public display of such a work of art is a rare opportunity that the entire Virgin Islands community should experience,” James concluded.
The painting is on display in the “Officers’ Quarters,” thereby joining James’ ongoing exhibition, “Sleeping with a Bachelor: The Antique Bedroom Collection of Crucian Collector Wayne James,” an exhibition featuring Danish West Indies and Danish mahogany furniture from the 1790s to the the 1890s; a rare collection of 19th -century oil portraits done by European artists of black subjects; and various other oil paintings and decorative arts.