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See one of the 'greatest marine painters' at Pasadena Museum of California Art

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp

Armin Hansen, Nino, c. 1919. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 in. Monterey Museum of Art. Gift of Jane and Justin Dart. Copyright & courtesy Pomegranate Comm.

At the center of his work was the sea. Armin Hansen was one of greatest marine painters ever born in this state. But while most of his turbulent seascapes were singular and memorable, it was his portrayals of the men who worked on the oceans off Monterey that brought him lasting fame.

It’s intriguing that Hansen was putting on canvas and paper an impressionistic rendering of the same sort of people his contemporary, John Steinbeck, was then describing in his literature.  Gatherings of work-aged men in shabby hats with red sunburnt noses, who bear their histories in their faces, gray-blue figures shouldering their oars against a cloudy sky as they slog to work.  And though later in life he dressed like a hunting squire in tweeds, vest, and tie whenever he went out into the Central Coast sunlight to paint these subjects, they must have known he had shared their life, working as a deck hand on a North Sea trawler in the years before World War One.

(Armin Hansen on a Monterey beach, n.d. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of California Views Photo Archive, copyright/courtesy Pomegranate Communications)

Nearly 100 of Hansen’s pictures and other works are on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in a show called the Artful Voyage.  For decades before his death in 1957, Hansen worked and taught in Monterey and Carmel. While he was appreciated by a broad public and revered by his students as one of the greatest art teachers in the West, Armin seems to have lived through prolonged rough times after the Great Crash of 1929.  He made some of his family’s own furniture, including a fine dining room table on display at the show, but complained that they ate mostly “beans and bread” off of it. He may even have been self-conscious about not living up to the commercial success of his late father, Herman Hansen, a Danish immigrant who in the 1870s and 1880s established himself as a famous illustrator, as well one of America’s pioneer painters of the Cowboy West.

The San Francisco-based Herman had taught his son to paint, and sent him to study art in Munich, as though foreseeing his son’s work might eventually overshadow his own.  Indeed it does: the younger Hansen’s work overflows with Impressionist colors that give it a life and emotional depth that even his father’s frontier action paintings, with their mid-1800s formality, lacked.

Armin Hansen’s seascapes vibrate with their deep blues and frothy beige grays. Oddly, he seems mostly to favor as subjects the sailing ships of the century before his—rust-streaked, weather-beaten square-riggers from the end of the sailing era, scudding sedately into the present. In contrast, most of his shipwreck paintings are of modern vessels, hopelessly ground ashore on the Monterey coast, sometimes surveyed from the shore by landsmen spectators whom he terms “Storm Birds.”

Exhibit curator Scott Shields suggests Armin Hansen’s financial hardships inclined him toward new directions, such as his midlife still lifes.  Perhaps, but I am more impressed with his turn towards his father’s finest work with his wonderful rodeo tableaus. His riders and horses can be bright splotches of color, or simply tan manifestations of the dust of the Salinas arena, all in impressionist precision.

(Armin Hansen, Cowboy Sport. Monterey Museum of Art. Gift of Jane and Justin Dart. Image protected by copyright and courtesy Pomegranate Communications)

His father would have been proud. “Like me,” old Herman Hansen might have said, “only so much better.”

Armin Hansen: The Artful Voyage is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through May 31. 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101

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