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Wantage Artist Graced by Fame, Louis Larsen’s paintings capture rural Sussex County - NJ Herald April 6, 2006
By Bill Wichert

Nationally renowned artist, Carol Decker is assited by her husband, Roy in a recent restoration of the Lois Larsen alter painting at the Beemerville Preysbeterian Church.

Wantage - No one wants to talk about it, but everybody knows the secret behind the wall painting at Beemerville Presbyterian Church: It’s a Louis Larsen.

The painting’s image of a dove floating in midair beneath an archway is nothing like the Norwegian born artist’s landscape pictures gracing homes across Sussex County, and there is no visible signature on the canvas. Still the church members know exactly what happened to the artist’s name. Larsen, it seems was known for being something else as well.

“The reason it got painted over is because Louis Larsen was such a drunk,” said Lori Space Day, one of the parishioners leading an effort to restore the wall painting in preparation for a fall wedding at the church. Despite the way he ‘would bend the elbow” as one Larsen fan put it, his paintings have become known nationwide for their folk- like portrayal of rural life in early 20th century America. His works, some of which he once created in exchange for room and board at a local farm, may now garner auction prices of up to $50,000.

“He kind of documented the whole Sussex-Wantage area at the turn of the century, and became known for that,” said Leon Castner, a north Carolina auctioneer who has sold several Larsen paintings over the years. Some Larsen paintings can be found as far away as Colorado and Florida, where Sussex County descendants have moved, Castner said. “Now if you are getting into a national market-big money- things change.

Lois Larsen is believed to be the artist that created the alter at our Church.

The Highest sale came from a local auction a few years ago, when the collector from Baltimore paid $48,000 for a Larsen painting because he considered it to be folk art, Castner said. “That takes it out of being local history, and puts it in another category,” he said. The wall painting at the Beemerville Presbyterian Church will most likely not be torn down and sold, but many find it’s depiction of spiritual life touching.

“It’s kind of a local treasure,” said Dr. Charles Jenkins, the church minister. “People identify with the painting , the way other folks identify with something in their own home. The dove represents Jesus Christ and the maroon background of the painting’s archway symbolizes the presence of God, Jenkins said. Larsen also paintied and octagon above the chandelier in the center of the church which Jenkins said represents the eight points of spiritual regeneration.

“The Sistene Chapel has nothing on us in Beemerville”, Day boasted. As the story goes, Larsen who was born in Mossige in the town of Stavanger, came to Sussex County around 1887 and lived here until his death in 1932. Learning how to speak English, Larsen soon became known as “The quite man who could paint anything”, according to a March , 1965 article in the Sunday Herald.

Larsen's centerpiece depiction of the dove represents Jesus Christ in the alter.

“Larsen was single and sinewy-minded, a character about town,” the article states, “His prices fluctuated , according to his thirst”. Over his nearly 50 year career, Larsen created a variety of works, including paintings of local farms, wood carvings, business signs, murals on farm buildings, and even a landscape picture on a local sewer tile, Castner said. The church’s wall painting is the only known one of its’ type in the area, he said. Some of his best known works are paintings of local taverns. “He spent a lot of time there,” Castner said.

After his death, a renewed interest in this works came in 1949 when resident Beatrice Smith discovered five Larsen paintings in the attic of her parents’ Hamburg Avenue home. The Paintings were displayed at Sussex Borough Hall but after two paintings were either damaged or lost, Theodore Holbert brought the remaining works to the Farmers National Bank (the current Bank of New York [now Chase]).

When Larsen first came to the U.S. he spent a short time painting theatrical backgrounds in N.Y.C., before moving to Sussex County.

Holbert started to build his own Larsen collection and , in 1965 helped to organize a country wide exhibition of the artist’s work. About 60 paintings were found ’among rummage at church sales, delegated to dusty attics, dumped on refuse heaps, stacked in second hand stores, and back up for an inside ball game,” according to the Sunday Herald article. Some of those exhibition paintings can still be found at the home of Amanda Haas, Holbert’s daughter, and she has no plans of giving them away.

“I love Louis Larsen. His paintings are so incredible. They are so detailed”, Haas said. “I would never sell them. It’ll be something handed down to my children”.

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