Armin Hansen captures impression of a harsher reality

The California painters of the early 20th century are often identified by a brand of sun-kissed Impressionism. This style is so strongly identified with our state that it’s not difficult to find contemporary California painters who work exclusively in this mode. For them, every image exists in a pristine landscape of pastel-hued, pre-industrial Eden. Which is one reason why the current Armin Hansen show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is so bracing and sometimes compelling.

Hansen (1886-1957) painted the same outdoors that the Impressionists essayed but he seldom trafficked in bucolic serenity. Specifically, he portrayed the sea off the California coast and, most importantly, the men who sailed and worked on it. Hansen’s canvases are vibrant, swirling and loud. His Pacific Ocean is not something to idealize or worship. It’s a threatening element — forbidding to any but the most practiced hands. It’s to be feared in the most extreme conditions and respected at every turn.

His sailors are old salts: gnarled, weathered, bent and tough as iron. They may be beaten down by the day’s work or from years on the water, but they suck up the hardships and keep going back to work.

For curator Scott Shields, the route to Hansen and his work was a circuitous one. “My dissertation was on the Monterey Peninsula Art Colony,” says Shields, who earned his PhD in art history from the University of Kansas. “I thought that they began in 1906, and Hansen was part of that group. I found out, though, that it went back to 1875; the first 50 artists had already been working there. As I delved into the early painters, I always knew I’d get back to Hansen at some point.”

Those late-19th-century painters did moody, evocative pieces with beautifully modulated colors. Hansen’s work was dynamic, with broad swaths of flattened color and expressionist filigree. Unlike his Northern California predecessors, his paintings held narrative content.

The canning industry in and around Monterey sprang up at the end of World War I. “I situate Hansen,” Shields states, “as riding between Robinson Jeffers — the romantic poet of the California Coast — and John Steinbeck, the hard-bitten novelist. He knew them both, and he knew the people who did the work. Hansen said that he wanted to combine his two desires: to fish and to paint.”

Hansen’s father and grandfather were artists, and he gained great facility when he studied in Germany as a young man. Some Cubist elements surface in the early paintings, but they were passing fancies. “He learned from his critics that style has to match the content,” Shields points out. Still, there are some marvelously abstract sections in his paintings, and he was quite expressive.

The show features a handmade dining table by Hansen. It’s of dark wood, in the Mission style. Austere and functional with rounded edges, it’s held together by mortis-and-tenon. But the sides of the uprights have delicately-detailed carvings with maritime designs.
“He was a big man,” Shields says, “6-feet-4 with big hands. But the carvings, like his etchings, were very fine.” A couple of model ships on display, made mostly from wood, show a similar flair for minutiae. “His father had great drafting skills, and Hansen learned from him to be very precise.”

Does the 47-year-old Shields see Hansen as an illustrator or documentarian? “It depends on the period,” he cautions, “but he could do both. He could record what he saw but he could also create art out of what he saw. He was an interpreter.”

The show is likely the first time that much of the art audience has the chance to see Hansen’s work. It’s unlikely that a better showing will subsequently be mounted.

What: “Armin Hansen: The Artful Voyage”

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art

When: Through May 31. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Contact: (626) 568-3665,


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.